Anyone who has been following this blog from the beginning knows how much we have been hyping up the free 72 ounce steak challenge at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Our excitement was not at all artificial; for every one time the steak challenge, or buffet training was mentioned in the blog, I thought about the challenge ten times. After reading up on training techniques, questions like “where on the road can I cook and eat—as quickly as possible—a whole head of cabbage, or some other food with a lot of weight and few calories. Should I have a practice round with, say, a fifty ounce steak?” Ultimately, I decided to train through extreme water intake (at my peak I was doing three quarters of a gallon in four minutes or so), and eating about three piled plates of buffet food at every available opportunity, such as the one pictured above.
After experimenting with drinking and eating, I decided a good water chug three or four hours before the competition would expand my stomach and leave me ravenously hungry at just the right moment—not that “I feel starving but my eyes are bigger than my stomach and I am going to feel full in like five minutes” type of starving—no, this would leave me hungry and ready to go, lending endurance. After reading up on competitive eating, I decided that my best chances were to try to get everything down as quick as possible, before my brain knew what was going on and informed my senses that I was full. To do so, I would want my hands and mouth working full speed to cut and chew. The more I cut, the less I would have to chew, and I figured that the optimal speed for your mouth and hands to be working is just fast enough that neither ever has to stop. I enlisted Sarah’s help in this regard. I wanted to be focused on eating fast like in a machine-like manner: avoiding thought at all costs, just acting. I knew that in this single mindedness, I could lose some efficiency. As per my prior instructions, every time my mouth or hands stopped working, Sarah would yell, "keep chewing” or ”keep cutting” respectively.
We arrived at the restaurant; I had called before and asked if you had to “schedule” a 72 ounce steak challenge. “No,” came the reply, “yuh just com’in an order it.” So that’s what I did. While we waited, I put a Facebook post up from my Blackberry, “Watch me eat the 72 oz steak!” and posted a link to the Big Texan webcam. We also called a few people, and even with the short notice, got an audience of ten or so. When the steak was about done, they took me up to the table on a stage (I brought my two fingers of whiskey with me) and explained the rules. They are more or less what you would expect, finish the meal in the hour, no help, you don’t have to eat the fat, but the leftovers will be judged for meat, etcetera.
The monster sirloin was laid before me, with an optional side of au jus. The edges went over the side of the plate. I cut into the middle of the thickest part of the beef for a sample; it was done medium rare—the cut of meat was a little tough for an ideal eating challenge but it was cooked to perfection. I cut into feast and gave the "OK" on the doneness. I was instructed not to speak to anyone. Everyone wanted to talk to the steak guy but it guaranteed defeat. I went over my mental notes as I chewed: I had taken a vow of celibacy from water, the salty au jus that would make me thirsty, or any of the filling carbohydrate sides until the conclusion; it was just me and the steak. After these few last pointers, I said “ready,” the timer was started, and I was off.
I cut the first normal-bite-sized piece and started to chew. Immediately after swallowing I cut two smaller pieces and put both in my mouth, saving a chew or two and using my hands and knife to their full advantage. I immediately noticed that the knife was a bit duller than I would have preferred, but still well within the acceptable range for a steak knife. After swallowing again, I put four smaller pieces in my mouth. After cutting several more small enough, I stopped cutting and focused on chewing faster. I heard Sarah call out “keep cutting!” I gave a half smile and kept going, cutting more and smaller pieces to minimize chewing.
After ten minutes I was going strong. I was ahead of where I needed to be, and not slowing. My hands were getting sore, but not enough to stop. People came and went, but were irrelevant. Several of the ones that talked to me said “you’ve got this bud” and I felt good. I heard some adolescent boys say several times to each other, “he’ll never do that.” I know that their statements spoke more to the challenge than my progress, but for that moment I felt nothing but contempt for them. The moment was fleeting and I kept eating.
From minutes twenty to thirty, my hands were getting sore. I had to stop every once in a while to crack my knuckles, something that I am almost never able—or have an inclination—to do. At this point I hoped to have eaten most of the steak (before I felt full), but I had already realized that at my level of expertise it was impossible to do so. It didn’t matter, the water stomach expansion had worked and I had already eaten the equivalent of two meals, and didn’t feel anywhere near full.
Thirty minutes had passed, and for the next ten I was still in good shape. I noticed that parts of the meat were significantly thicker than others, and I focused on these; I didn’t want to get near the end and only to realize that I still had more meat left than I had anticipated. The meat was still disappearing at a reasonable pace and I was a little over half done.
The period from forty to fifty minutes was tough. My jaw was getting sore, something that I hadn’t anticipated or trained for. Had I known, I would have chewed gum or eaten more beef jerky as part of my training. I still didn’t feel full, but was realizing that even without the problem of feeling full, the mechanics of getting the steak down would still be an issue. Sarah again yelled “keep cutting!” I gave her a ‘who do you think you are’ look. She asked me if I was here to argue or if I was here to win. This helped me redouble my efforts, which in turn, gave me confidence that I could finish. I was still on track to finish if I could keep up my average pace and finish the sides quickly. The waiter that gave me the rules stopped, impressed by my progress. “Most people don’t get that far. If you finish, break the potato in two and eat it with your hands, like a hotdog eater.
Even with this encouragement, the last ten minutes was rough. Even at the beginning of this period, I was putting smaller amounts in my mouth, gagging some times when I swallowed. After focusing I continued and repressed the urge to gag. I still didn’t feel full mentally, but I was physically becoming unable to swallow. At fifty-two minutes, I was eating smaller bites: two or three tiny chunks that looked to have the collective footprint of a penny. Even these were too much; I would chew well and try to swallow. When I couldn’t, I would pinch half the meat in my mouth, swallow the miniscule amount remaining, and then finish the pinch in my hands. As a last ditch effort, at fifty five minutes I changed strategy. I put a slightly larger, around nickel-sized piece in my mouth and chased it with water, flinging my head back like I was taking an aspirin. I chomped on the much wetter lettuce to chase the steak. Nothing worked. At fifty nine minutes, I put my fork down, had a much-desired drink of water, and picked up my whiskey.
Five minutes after the buzzer went off, I looked down. The steak seemed smaller then when I had just finished. All that was remaining was an eight to twelve ounce sirloin. I ate a couple more pieces and watched another contender for the next half-hour, gauging whether I could finish. I was finally feeling full, I could not. I crawled into the car and slept while Tom and Sarah drove us into Colorado.
Given the circumstances, I honestly don’t think I could have done any better. If I hadn’t been on the road, I could have prepared more thoroughly, and with bigger bites and less chewing, I may have gotten a little farther, but it probably wouldn’t have been a game changer. If I ever try again I will conquer the steak.
*If you find offensive things to be offensive, don’t read the rest!*
To answer the most asked question, I did not have an explosive bowel movement that night or, for that matter, for the next four days. All of my BM’s were disappointingly small, until the steak worked its way through, at which point it gradually got better. There was definitely no explosion.
I apologize for including this detail, but answering the same question repeatedly was getting tedious.