If there's one thing that gets folks in Buffalo to turn their heads away from their chicken wings, it is the marvel that is Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas.
The crowd at the eighth annual National Buffalo Wing Festival at Coca-Cola Field was deep into their wings Saturday afternoon, until it was time to gather around the main stage to watch Thomas -- all 105 pounds of her -- defend her crown in the Wing Eating Championship.
The slender Burger King manager from Alexandria, Va., didn't disappoint.
Thomas, 42, downed 169 wings, or 3.38 pounds of meat, in 12 minutes, taking first place in the event she has won three years in a row.
She also won in 2004.
"I was shocked," Thomas said after her win Saturday. "I came to win, but when I started to watch the other people, it looked like they ate more than me."
In fact, Thomas could have been considered an underdog in Saturday's field of 12 professional eaters, which included Western New York's own "Buffalo" Jim Reeves, a Boston resident and Gowanda High School teacher, and Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, a 24-year-old dietary chef from Chicago and the No. 2 ranked competitive eater on the circuit.
But Bertoletti's 159 wings were only good enough for a fourth-place finish, while Thomas -- the No. 6 ranked pro eater -- pulled out the three-peat.
"Sonya! Sonya!" members of the crowd chanted.
Buffalo has sort of adopted Thomas as one of its own, a recognition that comes with being a chicken wing record holder, a bar she set at the festival in 2007 when she ate 173 wings in 12 minutes.
"I like this competition. This is so much fun," Thomas said. "I like the crowd and they treat me so good."
But it was the wings the crowd came for on Saturday.
Garlic Parmesan. Honey mustard. Cajun. Thai chili. More than 100 styles of chicken wings were served up by more than 30 local and out-of-town restaurants.
Wing fans -- drawn by Saturday's beautiful weather and the national publicity the event has been receiving in recent years -- came from far and wide, and started lining up at the gates early.
"We had probably 1,000 people in line at 11 a.m. waiting to get in," said festival founder Drew "Wing King" Cerza.
Phil and Kia Smith, who saw the Wing Festival highlighted on the Food Network, came to the festival from Baltimore.
They lost count of how many wings they ate Saturday, but they will make sure they have room for more when they come back today. "Oh yeah," Kia said. "Of course."
Mike Reiter and Debbie Pollina drove six hours to the festival from Hackettstown, N.J.
"It's worth it," said Reiter, as he chomped away on a wing served up Cajun barbecue style. "I just love wings."
And Melodie and Frank Parrish of Nashville, N.C., came to Western New York to visit their former neighbors, Aaron and Amanda Bailey of Williamsville.
Of course, they made sure they came on Labor Day weekend -- for the Wing Festival.
"I thought it was great," Frank said, "and just as crowded as I thought it would be."
Cerza said he ordered 30 tons of wings for the festival this year -- three tons more than he had last year. But even that wasn't enough.
Saturday's crowd ate its way through an estimated 25 tons of wings, so Cerza ordered another 10 tons for the second day.
The festival runs from noon to 7 p.m. today.
Admission is $5. Children 8 and younger are admitted free. Festival-goers purchase tickets for the wings, which are three for $2.
Other winners Saturday were Nina Pierino, 18, of Chaffee, who won the Miss Buffalo Wing Contest; David Solomon, of Orlando, Fla., who won the amateur wing eating competition; and Andrew Padilla, from the New York City area, who won the Blue Cheese Bowl, bobbing for chicken wings.