Me and my big mouth

Believe it or not, this petite young woman is America's competitive eating champion. She can put away 552 oysters in 10 minutes, or 52 hard-boiled eggs in just five. But how does seven-stone Sonya Thomas do it? Andrew Buncombe joins her in Baltimore to find out.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

By itself it is nothing. But taken in context it is the most remarkable thing I have seen in a very long time. A slightly built woman is sitting with friends at a restaurant table less than 25 yards away and she has just eaten a steak for her lunch. It only looked like a small steak, but she ate every last scrap of it. Sitting behind her, watching, one could see her head gently bobbing up and down as she lifted each forkful towards her mouth. I just checked - actually crept around the restaurant and furtively spied on her from behind a pillar - and her plate was empty. She has eaten all of that steak.

When you first see Sonya Thomas you wonder whether she might be blown away by the breeze that is bouncing off Baltimore's inner harbour this bright and sunny morning. She is a very slim woman indeed, just seven stones zero by her own reckoning, and around 5ft 5in. One strong blast and you fear the wind might pick her up and unceremoniously dump her among the sightseers over on Federal Hill.

Yet Sonya is a tough-nut. She calls herself the Black Widow and she is a champion. As unlikely as it seems, she is a champion eater. Indeed, she is America's number one eater. She currently holds 26 separate eating records and last year she won $60,000 in prize money.

What is even more remarkable is that Sonya is the overall eating champion - not just in the skinny women category. She routinely destroys hulking men more than twice her size, humiliating them as she wolfs down her food as they stand nauseated and unable to push any more into their mouths. Her performances mock the efforts of bikers and former prison guards who can do nothing but look on as she scoffs her way past them, chewing - to borrow a phrase from F Scott Fitzgerald - with a delicate ferocity, and a boundless dedication.

To give some idea of this woman's unlikely ability, consider just some of the records she currently holds: 8.2lbs of chilli-and-cheese-covered French fries in 10 minutes, 8.3lbs of Vienna Sausages in 10 minutes, 552 oysters in 10 minutes, 5.95lbs of meatballs in 12 minutes, 162 chicken wings in 12 minutes, 8.4lbs of baked beans in 2 minutes and 47 seconds, 80 chicken nuggets in 5 minutes, 8.6lbs of sweet potato casserole in 11 minutes and - just for those people who were impressed by Paul Newman's ability to put away 50 hard-boiled eggs in the movie Cool Hand Luke - she has also scarfed down 52 such eggs in five minutes. It took Newman's character all night.

And of particular significance, last August in Harrington, Delaware, Sonya ate an astonishing 40 crabcakes in 12 minutes. It is that record she is here this morning to defend, or rather, to break. She has a plan to make it happen. "It's actually easier if you can dunk them in water," she confides.

The Black Widow's challengers this morning include some of the best known names from the eating circuit. Other than Sonya, they are all men. There is "Humble" Bob Shoudt, a hamburger specialist who weighs in at more than 20 stones, Chip Simpson, a 24-year-old who has eaten 41 Mexican tamales in 12 minutes, Jason "Crazy Legs" Conti, a buffet-eating champion known as the Houdini of Cuisini and Tim "Eater X" Janus, who once ate 36-and-a-half toasted cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes.

Apart from two or three local "amateurs" trying their hand, Sonya knows all the eaters. Indeed she admits, utterly straight-faced, that she watches video footage of her challengers' performances to better understand their tactics, just like the coach of a football team might sit down and study his rivals. "Especially on hot dogs and [chicken] wings," she says.

Aside from her stature, there is more oddness about Sonya becoming a champion in such an intrinsically American endeavour as competitive eating. There is something about stuffing your face with an obscene amount of food and getting paid for doing so that is as American as apple pie.

And yet Sonya was born and raised in Kunsan, South Korea. Anecdotal stories abound of how Sonya's parents struggled to pay to satisfy their daughter's appetite. What is known is that after obtaining a degree in hotel management she emigrated to the US and took a job with Burger King. She is currently manager at the branch at Andrews Airforce base in Maryland, home of Airforce One.

Her first try at competitive eating came three years ago during a qualifier for the World Cup of competitive eating - the 4 July hot dog challenge that has been held every year at Nathan's hotdog stand on the boardwalk at Coney Island since 1916, with just two exceptions. In that qualifier Sonya managed 18 dogs, giving her a slot in the final where she ate 25, which was a new record for women eaters. "I didn't know I was good at this," she says. "The first time I did it, it was just for fun. It just came out good so I thought, 'OK, let's do it'."

Many have pondered Sonya's talent. One idea is the "band of fat theory", which suggests larger eaters struggle to expand their stomachs because they are constrained by the fat. They point out that the world champion eater, the near-legendary Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, is also as skinny as Sonya. Dedication is also a factor. Sonya regularly practises for contests.

The so-called sport of eating contests - while dating back decades to events held at county fairs around the country - has only really had a national profile for the last half-dozen years since being sponsored by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, a New York marketing company headed by two brothers, Richard and George Shea, which "governs" a 100 or so events and annually pays out $250,000 in prize money.

From time to time these contests are featured on the ESPN sports television channel and the Sheas have even ventured that, f based on viewing figures, competitive eating is the fastest-growing sport in the US. It may be true but a newly published book by Jason Fagone, Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, also wonders whether there is a darker side to all this good natured, stuff-your-face-until-you're sick Americana.

He writes: "I used to wonder if competitive eating was a sign of the apocalypse. What if? What if eaters really were 'horsemen of the esophagus', in the words of George Shea - canaries in the coal mine telling us how we were losing touch with our bodies and our rapidly toxifying environment? Eating seemed like a highly entertaining but empty vice, its very emptiness made terrifying by its intensity, and its intensity made terrifying by its emptiness."

I start to have my own doubts when I inspect exactly what it is Sonya and the others are about to confront. On a stage alongside the harbour, the lightly grilled crabcakes are set on metal trays and placed on tables. The crabcakes are made from blue crab meat and provided by Phillips Seafood, a Baltimore institution dating back a century. Chef Paul Bartlett tells me they each consist of 3oz of backfin crabmeat, crumbled crackers, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, seafood spice, eggs and finely chopped parsley.

The organisers let me try one. It is delicious but surprisingly filling. Each crabcake has 160 calories. Even more than before I wonder how anyone, let alone a slightly built woman, can eat 40 or these things in one sitting. Sonya tells me that sometimes the contests leave her spending a lot of time in the lavatory for a couple of days afterwards but she says - and this is something about which you may wish to draw your own conclusions - that she does not make herself sick after eating.

Before I can ponder any of this too much, the judge - "Hungry" Charles Hardy, a former competitive eater himself - has some disturbing news for Sonya. There will be no dunking of the crabcakes in water, he declares. "It's too hard to measure," says Hardy, a former prison guard at Riker's Island jail where he started speed eating to participate in a prison guard eating team. "I started practising by drinking water and eating 10lbs of cabbage - putting it up by 8oz every time," he reveals.

He also reveals that, as at every eating contest, there are medics on hand. While there are no studies showing actual proven dangers, doctors have warned of the potential risks of speed eating and in Japan - another stronghold of competitive eating - several people choked to death during contests in the 1990s.

It's time to get started. Sonya makes a last-minute dash to the loo as the sound system is turned up and two fabulously over-the-top Masters of Ceremonies take to the stage, announcing each of the 12 "gurgitators". As the biggest name on the ticket Sonya comes last and stands centre-stage. She licks her fingers. The countdown begins.

They're off. Sonya grabs a handful of crabcake and pushes it into her mouth. It is gone in an instant and she pushes in more, masticating like a machine. Her cheeks are puffed out, full of food like a greedy chipmunk. She eats with one hand, using the other to take sips from a bottle. After one minute it is announced she has eaten eight.

All around her are scenes of farce and horror. Food and water and a combination of the two drip down faces as the contestants seek to push in more. Some look as if they are going to be sick, especially when it is announced after two minutes that Sonya has finished off 20.

One or two others are making a decent show. Chip Simpson, sitting down with headphones on and eating to a rhythm, is making steady progress, as is Humble Bob. But most sense that Sonya is getting away. One competitor with a muscle vest and tattoos - he is twice Sonya's size - looks over as she eats. You can see his face fall silent in bewilderment. He knows at that moment that he might as well not have come today.

By contrast she shows no sign of slowing. Nine minutes in and Sonya has eaten 43 crabcakes. The last seconds are excruciating and messy as the competitors try to force in a few last mouthfuls into their greasy, sodden mouths. It looks terribly painful. Then, at last, it is over.

There is a pause as the judges tote up the numbers. And then, with a fanfare mere words struggle to convey, it is announced that Sonya has eaten 46 crabcakes. It is a new record. She is thrilled. "I went very fast at the start. Then after about five or six minutes, I slowed down," she says. "I feel OK - I could eat more."

She stands for photographs, a huge smile across her face and her skinny arms holding the oversized prize-winners cheque above her head. It is amazing, I think to myself. Really remarkable.

I am really struggling to believe what I have just seen. The eating contest finished less than an hour ago and I am sitting with two friends outside a harbour-side restaurant. At first we did not recognise her but then - sitting with her own friends at a table less than 25 yards away - we saw this slightly built woman, eating a steak for her lunch.

There is no doubt it is her and I have even sent one of my friends to check she has emptied her plate. Sitting behind her, I watched. Her head bobbed gently up and down as she lifted each forkful towards her mouth.