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,'' says 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.
"She's just so small. I wonder how she keeps it all down," said Kantor, an associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland. "It wouldn't surprise me if she was bulimic. After the time limit has expired, she may just throw it all up."
Perhaps, Kantor added, Thomas's success can be explained by her having a more elastic stomach than most people and a strong sphincter between the stomach and esophagus helping to control the vomiting reflex.
Thomas insists that she keeps all of her food down and that she developed her stomach's seemingly limitless capacity primarily by drinking three 42-ounce diet Cokes every day during her shift as manager at the Burger King at Andrews Air Force Base. Many people think she purges, "but it's not the truth," Thomas said. "They don't understand how you can expand inside the stomach, how you can train.''
Thomas said she digests her food within eight to 12 hours after a competition and has never become sick. The only time she came close, she said, was after the cheesecake-eating competition in 2004.
"Oh, God, my stomach was upset. I couldn't think about cheesecake all day," she said.
Her strong constitution also could be the result of her avoiding the competitive eating circuit's more exotic foods, such as beef tongue, butter and mayonnaise. Her chief rival, Japanese sensation Takeru Kobayashi, has no such compunctions. Though he is most famous for downing 531/2 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, Kobayashi -- the world's only eater ranked above Thomas -- is also an unparalleled gourmand of cow brains.
He once ate 57 servings in 15 minutes. Technically, however, a tendency to hurl would not change a contest's results, so long as the hurling was done in the privacy of a post-pigout bathroom. But during the contest -- that's a different story. Richard Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, was quick to make that point at the recent buffalo wing battle.
"Anybody who suffers a reversal of fortune, also known as the Roman method, or makes me utter the term 'Elvis has left the building' will immediately be disqualified,'' Shea warned the competitors.
Shea, who uttered humorous pronouncements during the contest with the rolling tongue of a carnival barker, is a tireless promoter of competitive eating.
He says the sport has been around in an organized fashion for about two centuries and was especially popular in the United States in the early 20th century. The annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest on Coney Island has been held in some form since 1916.
But when Shea and his brother, George, started the federation in the late 1990s, only a few organized events were on the calendar. The brothers attracted media attention, won corporate sponsorship and regulated contests with rules that include a minimum age of 18. In the past two years, the number of federation-sanctioned eating contests has doubled from 50 to about 100, the vast majority in the United States.
The eaters and their backers attribute the growth to modern factors including reality TV coupled with the timeless appeal of food. As the federation helpfully notes on its Web site, www.ifoce.com: "If you have 30 hungry Neanderthals in a cave and [a] rabbit walks in, that is a competitive eating situation.''
Richard Shea dismisses criticism that his organization is contributing to the county's obesity epidemic. "We are not celebrating waste or gluttony," he said. "We are celebrating people's physical abilities to display great talents at the competitive eating table.''
An emergency medical technician is present at all contests but has never been needed, Shea said. Elvis leaves the building, Shea added, about three to six times a year when an inexperienced eater fails to "pace himself.''
He said that when he saw Thomas at her first event, a hot-dog eating contest in New Jersey in 2003, he thought: " 'Oh, boy, this poor gal is going to get killed by all these guys.' But it wasn't the case. She just has this inherent ability."
It is a talent that Thomas didn't know she had while growing up in South Korea. Her father was a carpenter and her mother a homemaker. The family was so poor that at times it was not possible to buy meat, she recalls.
"I ate normal Korean food -- rice and vegetables, that's it," she said.
She did develop a love of seafood, which would serve her well. In 2004, she devoured nine pounds of crawfish jambalaya in a world-record 10 minutes.
And Thomas's favorite food as a child was eggs. She would later scarf down 65 hard-boiled eggs in six minutes and 40 seconds, another record.
Still, Thomas said, she ate normal portions until she came to the United States in 1997 -- when she encountered Burger King. All those giant diet Cokes expanded her stomach, and her developing love of french fries didn't hurt, either.
It was then that Thomas began eating what remains her regular once-daily meal: a large order of Burger King fries; 10 chicken tenders; a grilled-chicken sandwich (hold the mayo); and her three 42-ounce diet Cokes. When she's off work, she likes eating at seafood buffets, and she mostly snacks on fruit.
By 2003, Thomas had developed a different craving: She wanted a challenge. Watching the Coney Island hot dog contest on television, she thought: "I wanted to do something special. I wanted my face on TV. So I decided to try it.''
She entered a hot dog-eating contest in New Jersey. After several minutes, she had managed to eat only one. But then she noticed something: The other eaters were dunking their buns in water, making them easier to eat, and breaking the hot dogs in half. "I copied them," she says.
Seventeen hot dogs later, Thomas had won with a total of 18 down in 12 minutes. "I could feel my stomach expanding," she recalled.
A few days later at Coney Island, she raised that total to 25 dogs, and earlier this year, she downed 37 at the Coney Island competition, breaking the women's world record of 32 she had set in 2004.
"They were so surprised, all the guys, that this newcomer, this little girl, could eat that much food," said the 5-foot-5 Thomas. Competitive eating is more mental than physical, she says. "In the middle of it, I talk to myself. I say, 'I gotta win, I gotta win.' ''
"You have to pace yourself, control yourself, make time for belching."
If Thomas was pacing herself in the wing-eating contest, it was not evident to a reporter (who felt a bit ill watching her). If anything, she gained speed as her rivals slowed, and she managed to stuff down two more wings in the final six or seven seconds.
But her focus was clear. Thomas never so much as glanced at the other eaters, though some of them would nervously look over at her. And she didn't crack a smile -- until the contest was over.
Today, Thomas is a virtual conglomerate. She has earned more than $50,000 in prize money this year and has a Web site, www.sonyatheblackwidow.com, that lists her records and extensive media appearances. She also provides nuggets of wisdom for her fans, including this jab at her male opponents: "It's difficult for some male egos to accept defeat by a member of the opposite sex, especially a little one like me. It's a blow to their pride."
She is unsure how long she will continue eating competitively, but her dream is clear: She wants to open her own fast-food restaurant.