The grilled-cheese eaters all stand at the long table. Each one has been given two plates of five grilled-cheese sandwiches, along with at least two cups of water: one for drinking, one for dunking. All of the top eaters pre-moisten their food by dunking, which eases the food’s journey down the esophagus and kick-starts digestion.
Their hands are not allowed to touch the food until Shea gives the word. He counts down from ten: “Two … one … go! Oh my good gracious, we have begun! But it is not simply a contest, it is a journey, my friends, a journey down the alimentary canal, a journey to self-discovery, self-realization … The big men, the two pillars of competitive eating, the two Horsemen of the Esophagus, ‘Hungry’ Charles Hardy and Edward ‘Cookie’ Jarvis, here at this portion of the table … ”
The eaters rip in, dunking the sandwiches in the water cups and cramming them mouthward with no regard for manners or decorum. As performers, they are very Dizzy Gillespie: dimples blowfished, eyes laser-locked on the chow. “Violent” is a word that comes to mind. “Assault” is another. It’s scary, the suddenness with which the mood of the contest has morphed from chipper to an insectoid creepiness. Rich “The Locust” LeFevre, who looks like somebody’s geeky uncle with his big plastic glasses and gray comb-over, is particularly fearsome. He rotates the sandwiches once they reach his lips, twirls them like they’re corn on the cob, and mashes them inward, toward his pinker parts, the force spraying bits in a scatter pattern around his swampy water cup. A gluttonous metronome, he never alters his food- shoveling rhythm. This is not normal.
“Remember, ladies and gentlemen,” Shea says, “competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer battle for men’s souls!”
Sonya Thomas is thirty-seven years old, but you believe it only if you get very, very close. If you don’t, she looks eighteen. She speaks in clipped English punctuated by an immigrant’s tics—quick laughs and question marks to make sure she’s being understood. Movie-watching is one of her hobbies. Her other hobby is driving. She takes long drives to nowhere in particular. She owns a red Pontiac Grand Am, and she drives it very, very fast.
The luxury of a long drive in a red Grand Am was not available to Sonya in South Korea, where she was born and lived until she was in her twenties. Much has been made of the fact that her childhood home had no refrigerator, that her parents were poor (mother a maid, father a carpenter), and that she had to share food with her siblings. At least as crucial to her hunger, however, was her stifling professional life in South Korea. She worked as a typist for a shipping company. “In that time I was a little bit heavier,” she said. “Forty pounds heavier. I don’t eat any meals. I just eat all junk food … typist, sitting down, answer the phone, sometimes get sleepy. I don’t like that job, so I change it.” After she put herself through restaurant school and looked for new work, men told her, “Oh, you are a woman, you cannot do this.”
So she moved to America.
Sonya worked at an Air Force base in Maryland, managing a Burger King. She pulled long shifts and saved her money. In 2002 she watched the Nathan’s contest on TV and got curious. Over the next few months she experimented at home, then entered a Nathan’s qualifier in 2003 and earned a spot in the finals, where she broke the women’s record, with twenty-five dogs consumed. In August 2003, she took third in the U.S. Chicken Wing Eating Championship, in Buffalo. In October, despite never having eaten a pulled-pork sandwich in her life, she ate twenty-three in ten minutes, winning $1,250 and the world title.
But Sonya attracted little national attention until late 2003, when her friend David “Coondog” O’Karma—the tag-team bratwurst champion of Canton, Ohio—told her about Wing Bowl, a Philadelphia chicken-wing-eating contest.
In the simplest terms, Wing Bowl is a radio promotion. It may be the largest pure radio promotion in the country. It is owned, trademarked, and produced by 610 WIP-AM, a sports talk-radio station in Philadelphia. WIP is itself owned by Infinity Broadcasting, a division of the CBS media empire—CBS, UPN, Paramount Television, Simon & Schuster, etc., etc. In 1993 two of WIP’s deejays created Wing Bowl as a stunt to boost ratings for The Morning Show, which airs from 5:30 to 10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday. Its deejays talk about Wing Bowl every single day for two and a half months, starting in November and ending on the day of the event. The date changes from year to year. Like Easter.
In a mischievous mood, Coondog e-mailed one of the show’s deejays, Angelo Cataldi, and said he knew a 99-pound girl who could beat the legendary Bill “El Wingador” Simmons. Simmons, a 322-pound truck driver from south Jersey, stood alone in the history of the previous eleven Wing Bowls, having been crowned champion no fewer than four times. Cataldi knew a great story line when he saw one, and gave Sonya a bye into Wing Bowl XII. Stunningly, she proceeded to beat Simmons. He accused her of dropping her chicken on the floor. The New York Posts Gersh Kuntzman, the original competitive-eating beat reporter, thought Simmons was guilty of not cleaning his wings. “I could have an entire meal off the meat that Bill left on his bones,” he said.
A few months later Sonya beat Simmons in a hot-dog contest, and she won other contests too. Brian “Yellowcake” Subich, a top-twenty eater, tells a story about a baked-bean contest from the summer of 2004. The field included Sonya, Subich, and Cookie Jarvis. After just two and a half minutes, George Shea announced that Sonya was almost done with her 8.4 pounds of beans. “I said, ‘You have to be freaking kidding me,’” Subich told me. “What does she do? Pour ’em down her shirt? Put ’em into a plastic bag?” At Shea’s announcement, Jarvis lifted his head, glanced at Sonya, registered what Subich calls “the most crestfallen look you could ever imagine,” and vomited beans through his nostrils.
Sonya was forcing a realignment in American eating. When asked for the secret to her success, she would just wink and describe her love for her adoptive country, as if that explained everything.
“In America,” she told me, “if you have desire you can do anything. Is big. Big.” She holds her hands out wide. “Big country!”