Making Room for Whatever Is on the Table
Sunday, November 20, 2005
In a corner of a Bethesda restaurant, a long table is set with a white tablecloth, ready for lunch. But there will be no fancy dining this Saturday afternoon.
Amid loud whoops and even louder music, the eaters are introduced. There is Don "Moses" Lerman, who once consumed seven sticks of butter in five minutes. There is a burly 57-year-old man with a big stomach known as "the Cal Ripken of the Calorie" and a 6-foot-6, 325-pound football coach whose nickname is "Yellowcake Subich," possibly because he loves corn bread. One guy wears a black cape.
The loudest cheers, though, are reserved for a tiny woman with arms like twigs and no apparent stomach. "Sonya! Sonya!" onlookers chant. One holds up a sign: "Sonya for President." Another wears a T-shirt: "Sonya, if you marry me, you can have all the food you want."
The object of this adulation, Sonya Thomas, sits at the table in front of a giant tray of greasy buffalo wings, licks her fingers, rocks back and forth and then, when the crowd counts down from 10, begins what she calls the "rip and strip.'' Her jaws in constant motion, she dives into the wings, turning each one over and over, tearing meat from bone with her teeth, shoveling a wing down her throat every four to five seconds. She rarely looks up.
Within 10 minutes, the 98-pound Thomas has consumed 5.75 pounds of meat, more than 150 wings in all.
In the end, when all the men have been beaten, some appearing ready to vomit, Thomas smiles for the cameras, waves at her fans and holds up a $1,500 check indicating that she has, indeed, won the Verizon VoiceWing Buffalo Wing Eating Battle.
Then she heads out for a salad.
It was just another day at the restaurant, so to speak, for the 38-year-old resident of the Alexandria section of Fairfax, who is the top-ranked U.S. speed eater. Thomas, who is known as the Black Widow (because, she says, she likes to "kill the men"), is increasingly dominating a fast-growing competitive eating circuit that is part sport, part entertainment and a lot of spectacle and hype.
Since she discovered her inner pig in 2003, Thomas has set 23 world records. Some of her personal favorites: 80 chicken nuggets in five minutes, 552 oysters in 10 minutes, 44 Maine lobsters in 12 minutes, and 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes.
"She's very good,'' said Lerman, 56, the butter-eating champion from Long Island, who wears a shirt that says "the fastest hands in competitive eating" and sports a silver chain with a miniature French bulldog charm for luck.
"She's got speed, capacity and good technique," he said. "Internally, the stomach is the same size, whether you are 500 pounds or 120."
Mark Kantor, who studies the workings of the stomach for a living, is skeptical.