Eating chicken wings as fast as possible has been a cherished Buffalo pastime as long as there have been chicken wings.
Until recently, that accomplishment might earn you bragging rights, and some Tums. These days, speed-eating wings has become a national sport. Case in point: The annual National Buffalo Wing Festival, being held Saturday and Sunday at Coca-Cola Field, hosts the national championship in chicken wings for the nation's professional competitive eaters. First place is worth $1,500.
This year's schedule adds professional athletes of the muscular variety – Andy Levitre and Eric Wood of the Buffalo Bills – facing off over chicken wing platters. They'll compete on behalf of charities at 4:45 p.m. Saturday; Levitre for the Food Bank of Western New York, and Wood for the Make a Wish Foundation of Western New York.
While Levitre and Wood may be experts at pummeling linebackers, downing chicken wings is another discipline altogether. So we asked Sonya Thomas, the reigning U.S. chicken wing eating champion, for a few pointers they might chew on to prepare.
First off: It's not about size and strength. Thomas stands 5 feet 5 inches tall, and weighs in at 102 pounds, the South Korean-born champion said recently. "I was about 100 but I gained weight," cracked Thomas, who's nicknamed the "Black Widow" for her ability to take down much bigger men.
Without any apparent sense of irony, Thomas is a fast-food manager. She helps run the Burger King at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Last year Thomas was credited with eating 183 chicken wings in 12 minutes. That was 6.4 pounds of chicken, off the bone. Joey Chestnut, the 6 foot tall, 218 pound No. 1 ranked competitive eater, came in second, with about 6.2 pounds, Thomas said.
So much for the reach advantage. The winners in this field, Thomas said, focus on a few athletic feats that are underrepresented in the National Football League.
First: Fast to eat fast.
Thomas said she might eat something light, like a salad, the night before. Otherwise, nothing. "You do not want other food in your stomach," she said.
Second: Hand speed rules.
"Chicken wing is technique food," Thomas said. "It's not shoveling a lot and swallowing. You have to get the meat off the bone. It's a lot of work. If it was just swallowing, maybe Chestnut would beat me. But you have to get the meat off the bone. You cannot eat bone, right? And I have small hands."
Third: Don't chew.
"The meat is not tough," said Thomas, who also holds records in oysters on the half-shell (564 in 10 minutes) and whole pickled jalapeno peppers (250 in 9 minutes). "It's not a lot of meat. So when you eat that chicken wing, swallow that meat as quickly as possible, without chewing too much. Chewing too much is wasting time."
Fourth: Expect to hit "the wall."
"Sometimes when you're eating a lot of food, same kind of food, you reach the stomach capacity, it seems," Thomas said. Your body is telling you you're full. The champions don't listen.
"My God I'm full, my stomach is telling me. I can't eat any more, my brain is telling me. Sometimes it's feeling like a sickness coming, not to throw up, but the feeling I cannot eat any more. But if you cannot get over that part, you're out. You cannot win. You cannot do [your] best."
Fifth: Hydrate sparingly.
Thomas said she does drink water during contests, but only to move blockages. "Even though I try to eat without water, and chicken wings are kind of juicy, sometimes when you have a lot in your mouth it's hard to swallow, so I use water to wash it down."
Sixth: Champions burp.
"What happens is, when you're eating so fast a lot of the food is still in your chest, not in your stomach," Thomas said. "Try to burp. You have to get burpy. Then you can eat more. You need to get the food down to your stomach, and air out. Then you have more room for food."
Seventh: Use gravity as a compactor.
Thomas said she jogs or jumps after she starts feeling packed, to help the food reach her stomach with a minimum of water. "I do the jumping and try to get air out when I hit the wall."
Thomas said she's looking forward to the festival, where she will renew her chicken-wing rivalry against Chestnut, at 4 p.m. Sunday. A roster of local college athletes representing the University at Buffalo, Buffalo State College and Canisius will go head-to-head first, at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Meanwhile, the rest of the festival will go on. More than 35 local and national restaurants and vendors will be selling wings, sauces and more. Festival founder and organizer Drew Cerza said that this year's wings would be the largest available, jumbo roaster wings.
There's live music, the Miss Buffalo Wing pageant, sauce-making competitions for amateur chefs, and the spectacle of people trying to bob for chicken wings in a kiddie pool full of blue cheese dressing with their hands behind their backs. (Competitor tip: Bring goggles.)