It's no gag when the Black Widow sits down to eat

May 01, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

I stood in the presence of greatness the other day.

True, it was a nauseating greatness.

A disgusting greatness.

A greatness that made you reconsider whether we, as the human race, have truly evolved as much as advertised, or whether it's time for an asteroid to smack into the planet and end the whole thing.

I watched 14 men and one woman gather for the Phillips Crab Cake Eating Contest at the Inner Harbor, watched them cram great gobs of the stuff into their mouths with hundreds in the audience cheering this stunning display of either eating prowess or sheer gluttony, take your pick.

And when it was over, there was greatness: The winner was tiny, 98-pound Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, who broke her old world's record and set a new one by scarfing 46 crab cakes in 10 minutes.

Think about it: 46 of those babies!

This, God help me, I watched with my own eyes, not 10 feet away from her.

After which I vowed to never take in solid food again.

The Black Widow, on the other hand, looked fresh enough to take in a nice seafood buffet next.

"Oh, I feel good!" she said, holding up her mock winner's check for $1,500. "I'm so happy to break the record!"

A few feet away, 24-year-old Chip Simpson, a sturdy graduate student from Pennsylvania who nailed 39 of the 3-ounce crab cakes to finish second, studied the waif-like Black Widow and shook his head in disbelief.

"It's just a natural thing with her," said Simpson. "She's just a wonder. That's all you can say."

Maybe you've heard of Thomas, who is 38, manages a Burger King at Andrews Air Force Base and is the darling -- and No.1-ranked American "gurgitator" -- of something called the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) tour.

But, oh, you have to see her chow down in person.

Look, she once downed 46 dozen oysters in 10 minutes.

Nailed 11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes another time.

Destroyed 162 Buffalo wings in 12 minutes after that.

The woman doesn't eat food, she fast-forwards it through her jaws.

No wonder she claims 26 "World Titles" in various speed-eating categories.

And when you see her go crab cake-to-crab cake with 250-pound weightlifters and 275-pound bouncers, bopping to the beat of the music, a serene study in concentration and willpower, you see how she got her nickname.

"Like the female black widow spider, it is my desire to eliminate the males," is how she delicately puts it.

Other descriptions of her are equally poetic.

The IFOCE, according to its president, Rich Shea, calls her "a cross between Anna Kournikova, Billie Jean King and a jackal wild on the Serengeti."

With a platter of crab cakes in front of her, she was more like a barracuda picking off a school of sardines, although maybe we should just take a break with the metaphors.

Competitive eating is big with a certain demographic: young males in their late teens and 20s who can't understand why the idea of stuffing yourself until your stomach explodes took this long to catch on.

And televised coverage of events such as the July 4th Nathan's Famous International Hot-Dog Eating Contest has made celebrities of the Black Widow, who's been competing for three years now, and many of her top IFOCE rivals.

But one thing you quickly realize as a spectator at a live competitive-eating contest is that having a front-row seat is not necessarily a good thing.

Watching 15 people on a podium shovel food into their mouths gets sickening in about, oh, 15 seconds.

The possibility also exists that one or more of the competitors will, um, have a problem keeping the food down, if you catch my drift.

(The IFOCE euphemistically calls this "a reversal of fortune" or "suffering urges contrary to swallowing." With public relations geniuses like that, no wonder the sport is taking off.)

But instead of getting grossed out by all 15 competitors, I focused pretty much on the Black Widow and got grossed out by her.

In a pre-gorge interview, she said she doesn't really train for these pigouts.

And she doesn't worry about her weight -- she typically gains about 10 pounds at these contests -- because she works out a lot on a treadmill, and "I don't eat like this all the time. This is just once a month."

If you ever doubt this is a great country, consider that Sonya Thomas made $60,000 pigging out last year.

Her goal now, she said, is to topple the legendary Takeru Kobayashi, the No. 1-ranked eater in the world known with typical IFOCE subtlety as "The Greatest Eater Who Ever Lived."

("Koby," who ate an inhuman 53 1/2 hot dogs and buns at the July 4th Coney Island contest two years ago, is considered the Michael Jordan of the sport, the mythic glutton against which all other gluttons are measured.

("Eating with Kobayashi is like doing math with Einstein, or making violins with Stradivarius," said Ryan Nerz, the crab cake contest master of ceremonies.)

But the Black Widow's rep is growing -- unlike her waistline -- and a real rivalry with Kobayashi is her dream.

I'm glad I saw her at the top of her game.

It was nauseating - but a good kind of nauseating.

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