Horsemen of the Esophagus

Among the super-gluttons, on the front lines of competitive eating

At the two-and-a-half-minute mark in Venice Beach, Sonya has ten grilled-cheese sandwiches down the hatch.

“Nostradamus, born in the early sixteenth century, actually mentioned the Grilled Cheese Championship in his poetic yet cryptic quatrains,” George Shea says. “He said, ‘And at one point under the bright sky they shall gather to eat, they shall gather to eat the cheese that has been pouched in bread and grilled!”

Sonya eats with no recognizable style. She knows that style bleeds speed. She’s a machine. Efficient. Just flat fast.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Shea says, “the universe has no edge and no center, and like Sonya Thomas’s stomach it is ever-expanding … Is she the best eater in the world? No. That is Kobayashi.” Shea means Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi. “Is she the best eater in America? Yes. Without any question. Will I phrase everything heretoforward in the form of a question? No.”

Three minutes and thirty seconds left, and Sonya has a small but solid lead. The LeFevres, Badlands Booker, and Jed Donahue are still eating at full tilt, but the rest have started to fall off. “They face,” Shea says, “a mission similar to that of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan—namely, to balance the forces of inflation and deflation.”

The outcome is certain, but there’s still drama in watching Sonya’s tally rise and rise. With a minute-thirty left, Shea loses it. “OH! MY! GOD! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” he screams. “Here under the sun, the clouds have parted to allow us here today to demonstrate our commitment to the Virgin Mary and to victory in the world of competitive eating. I am absolutely OVERWHELMED by emotion! I have not felt this much emotion since the birth of my first child, a son!”

Shea’s voice cracks with emotion.

“I am feeling the spirit overcome me, ladies and gentlemen! TWENTY-THREE GRILLED-CHEESE SANDWICHES, SONYA THOMAS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”

He starts speaking in tongues.

A few seconds later, when it’s time to begin the final countdown, Shea snaps back into English.

“Ten, nine, eight … ”

A flurry of last-minute face-stuffing, then Shea ends it.

An IFOCE official goes from plate to plate, tallying sandwiches. In a slight upset, Carlene LeFevre has beaten the big boys from New York to take third place, with just shy of twenty-one grilled cheeses. She giggles, raises her hand in acknowledgement of the crowd, then leans over and wipes her mouth on her husband’s shirt.

Jed Donahue and Rich LeFevre have tied for second, with twenty-three sandwiches.

Sonya Thomas takes first, with twenty-five. “That’s the fifth time I’ve come in second to Sonya,” Rich LeFevre says. “It’s getting boring.”

Shea presents Sonya with a championship belt that says WORLD GRILLED CHEESE EATING CHAMPION in gold letters. She holds it up high above her head and grins for the cameras. Then she grabs her twenty-sixth grilled cheese, takes a ponderous bite, and laughs.

Presented by

Jason Fagone is a writer at large for Philadelphia. This article is drawn from his forthcoming Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream (Crown).

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