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Restaurant Food Challenges and the Brave Eaters Who Lived to Tell the Tale

No one knows exactly why some Americans feel compelled to binge-eat on a stage in front of other diners — but we can't look away

When 44-year-old Josh entered the Big Texan Steak House in Amarillo, Texas, to participate in their world-famous “72oz Steak Challenge,” he was surprised by the theatrics of it all. The announcers called his name like he was a prize fighter, and when he walked on stage to take his seat at the table, he noticed they had placed a puke pail nearby. He was also surrounded by countdown clocks, and as he waited for his steak to arrive, people came up to wish him luck and snap photos. For the next 60 minutes or so, Josh was the star attraction — all eyes were on him as he tore through a slab of meat like a wild animal.

In addition to the 72-ounce steak, Josh had to consume a baked potato, dinner roll, salad and three fried shrimp as well. He went over his game plan one last time in his head before the timer began. “My strategy was to eat the steak first because carbs bloat me,” he tells me.

The 72oz Steak Challenge

When the steak first came out, it was warm, tender and juicy. “I was going all out just ripping through it, using my bare hands,” he says. But after about 20 to 30 minutes, the fatty juices began to solidify. Josh felt himself slowing down, each bite more and more laborious than the last. “I couldn’t just swallow huge chunks of meat unchewed,” he explains. “It became a chore to eat. It got rough.” Making things even more surreal, a friend who had come along as moral support hired the restaurant’s roving cowboy troubadours to serenade Josh with country classics, an unlikely soundtrack to his overwhelming meat sweats

After 45 minutes and 60 ounces of red meat, he felt like he was going to puke and threw in the towel, sparing the onlookers a finish reminiscent of the infamous pie-eating scene in Stand by Me.

Despite doing the humane thing, Josh couldn’t help but feel like a disappointment, the uneaten carcass a painful reminder of his failure. “My co-workers had all found out I was doing it, so lots of bets were made,” he says. “Obviously the losers weren’t happy. The shame I felt!” 

Josh isn’t alone in his shame. More than 68,000 people have attempted the 72oz Steak Challenge, but only 9,800 have completed it.

Food challenges have been a restaurant gimmick in the U.S. for over 100 years, the first known one originating at the Crown Candy Kitchen in St. Louis in 1913 — a malt slurping competition that’s still around to this day. The rules? You must pound five malts or shakes in 30 minutes, and there’s no sharing, puking or doing anything to make more room (e.g., taking a huge dump). (You’re more than welcome to puke outside when the 30 minutes are up, but bring your own mop and bucket.)

The Big Texan was also an early adopter, starting its steak challenge in 1963. But the trend really took off in 2008, when the Travel Channel launched its highest rated premiere ever, Man v. Food, starring actor/food lover Adam Richman. Over three seasons, Richman criss-crossed the country engorging himself on local foods and participating in a given city’s food challenge. Along the way, he did what Josh couldn’t — finishing the 72oz Steak Challenge in just 30 minutes; he wasn’t, however, as lucky with the Crown Candy Malt challenge, which ended with him in the bathroom hugging the bowl. 

There are now more than 2,300 such food challenges throughout the country. You can slurp down 15 dozen oysters at the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans; try the Big Fat Fatty sub at Fat Sal’s in L.A., which is full of cheesesteak, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers and more artery-clogging fried goodies; and get your ass blown out with hot wings at Munchies 420 Cafe in Florida. There truly is a food challenge for everyone, no matter who you are or how you want to destroy your digestive tract.

Michigander Courtney has worked at a few places that offer novelty food competitions. The first was a local radio station that hosted a yearly wing-eating competition. She was a “Wingette,” one of the lovely young women responsible for pulling dirty plates out of the way as men sucked the bones clean on over 100 wings each. She recoils when I ask her about the carnage. “So… much… puke,” she offers bluntly.

But Courtney’s puke-filled days were only the beginning. Her next job at a popular burger joint had several slider records you could try to topple. The walls were lined with pictures of past champs and the unholy amount of patties they had shoved into their mouths. Courtney, however, says the staff was largely irritated by the challenges. “People would mostly talk more shit about being able to do it instead of actually doing it,” she tells me. “We’d run the risk of someone wanting to break a record but chickening out once we cooked everything.”

And those who didn’t chicken out could be total assholes, like the dad who egged on his 17-year-old son to eat a slider with 47 patties, the mother of all White Castles. He cheered his son on during the early patties, but as things started to look dire after patty number 30, he told his son he better finish, since he didn’t want to pay. Once the last patty went down, the teen ran outside and puked them all back up, technically a victory, but not a pretty one. His dad may not have had to fork over the cash, but the restaurant had the last laugh. “My manager wouldn’t let me clean up the puke, he made the cocksucker dad do it,” Courtney recalls. “Watching the dad piss and moan about how gross the puke was made it kind of worth it.”

Although puke is the most common ailment in food challenges, Erica’s husband had a different problem when he participated in a hamburger-eating challenge. She tells me that after two and a half burgers, he felt a blockage in his chest. He stopped eating, but the blocked feeling continued. He finally went to the doctor a few days later. When he explained what had happened, the doc replied, “What the fuck did you do that for?!?!” Her husband was prescribed a time-release laxative, which removed his discomfort by putting his bowels into overdrive. 

Peter, a 34-year-old in Seattle, was the only person I found who successfully finished a challenge — throwing back a 5-pound burger and another pound of fries. He claims that he was no worse for wear afterward. “I felt a bit fuller than I liked to, but later that night I was fine,” he says. The event, however, still left a bad taste in his mouth. “I wouldn’t do it again,” he continues. “It was weird casually trying to eat so much food while others were vomiting beside me.”

It’s the puke that almost everyone is haunted by — and for good reason. Joan, who worked at the legendary ice cream parlor Farrell’s 40 years ago, continues to be triggered whenever she thinks of an incident she witnessed while on a break. “A young teenage girl came running out the front door and proceeded to puke the entire Pig Trough all over the walkway leading to the restaurant,” she says. “A fountain of pink, white and brown melted ice cream. The thought still makes me shudder!”

For the uninitiated, the Pig Trough was the name of the sundae you had to consume to win Farrell’s food challenge. It was six huge scoops of ice cream, bananas, three different toppings, nuts, whipped cream — the works. Oh, and it gets way, way piggier. Once you came close to finishing this beast of a double banana split, the staff would bang a drum to get the whole restaurant’s attention. They would then shout out the achievement and instruct the challenger to snort like a pig while they gobbled up the last few bites.

I ask Joan what the reward was for humiliating yourself like this. “They’d receive a stupid blue ribbon that read, ‘I made a pig of myself at Farrell’s,’” she responds. 

That is just so, so dark.