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Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 13:23 UK

Where the steaks are high (and wide)

John Elliot
Diner John Elliot tucks into the mammoth meal

Kevin Connolly
There's one place where global food shortages are making very little impact - at a roadside eaterie in Texas, where diners are invited to wolf down a steak the size of telephone directory in just one hour. Kevin Connolly (right) decided to see whether he could meet the challenge.

However much you tell yourself it's only an eating competition, there is a moment when your name is called and you climb on the stage when you realise that the steaks are enormous.

As I prepared for my own attempt to consume 72oz (that's 4.5lb or just over two kilos) of beef in less than an hour - together with a prawn cocktail, a roll, salad and baked potato - I felt a perceptible tightening of my stomach muscles. It was a feeling with which I was to remain distressingly familiar for the following few days.

The steak challenge at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo feels like a relic of Dwight D Eisenhower's United States, that vanished country of boundless plenty which flourished in the 1950s, before Americans discovered inflation, obesity and OPEC.

It was the brilliant invention of a showman, Bob Lee, who needed to tempt the first generation of long-range motorists to interrupt their journeys along the country's expanding network of highways which were carrying them to holidays on the horizons of American prosperity.

When the UK had food rationing during World War II this was the total amount given to a family of four for a week

Back in those days, around 1960, there were still cowboys working the hard ranching land of the Texas panhandle, and part of the answer was a judicious use of free beer to persuade them to eat and drink in the new roadhouse. That meant tourists steadily ploughing across the dusty plains on the old Route 66 could find themselves playing walk-on parts in the romantic myths of the Old West, for the price of a steak dinner.

But the 72oz challenge itself quickly became the main hook - it's advertised on billboards that stretch east and west along the road - and somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people have tried it since it was first offered.

The proposition is simplicity itself.

You pay $72 up front for your dinner and then, if you can eat the whole giant steak and trimmings in less than an hour you get your money back.

In Texas of course, land of showmanship, the transaction is not carried out in a discreet table tucked away out of sight somewhere. You perform on a raised platform in the middle of a dining room which probably seats around 500 in front of a giant digital counter.

Nine-minute record

And just in case you are worried that the scope for humiliation will be confined to people in the room with you, there's a webcam which sends images of your attempt around the world.

Big Texan Steak Ranch
The venue's unassuming frontage

If you win, you don't just get your money back, you achieve a curious kind of immortality which, if you're lucky, will outlive the chronic indigestion.

About 8,000 people have succeeded in all - including an 11-year-old boy and a woman of 69.

The current record was set earlier this year by professional speed-eater Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, who wolfed the whole meal down in under nine minutes. He would have done it more quickly apparently but he was slowed down by the temperature of the baked potato.

A wrestler called Klondike Bill (who I should point out is no longer with us) once completed the challenge twice inside an hour.

To put all that in perspective, a 72oz steak is around the size of a big city telephone directory and arrives on your plate looking something like a grilled elephant's ear. When the United Kingdom had food rationing during World War II this was the total amount given to a family of four for a week.

Attempting to eat it produces a series of bizarre delusions; those of us who've done it talk knowledgeably about "meat sweats" - which kick in as your body struggles with the unnatural load; and the "meat stare" - the blank look which settles on you as the inevitability of failure sets in.

Appetite for escapism

There is also a curiously hallucinogenic quality to ingesting that much meat in that short a time - you can hack away for a whole hour and feel as though the steak hasn't really been reduced in size at all. That happened to me, even though I ate around 2lb of meat in about 55 minutes.

Joey 'Jaws' Chestnut
Hazard of the job - Joey 'Jaws' Chestnut at a hotdog eating contest

As I said, the meat challenge came from the land of plenty that was Eisenhower's America - you might well wonder how well it fits in a modern world of food shortages and price rises.

Americans, of course, are not completely insensitive to those global challenges, and they are not entirely immune to the effects of them either. But it certainly doesn't look as though the appeal of the steak challenge is flagging. This year has been one of endless bad news for the American economy but the challenge is more popular now than it was last year.

The American appetite for escapism, here at least, outweighs any moral squeamishness people might feel at this grotesque, but compelling, display of excess.

You will have to make up your own mind about how comfortably you feel it sits in the modern world - but don't underestimate its appeal to many Americans for whom it unites the myths of the old west with the love of a deal and the excitement of a challenge.

I can't promise I'll be doing again myself, but you can be sure it will endure.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Surely the point of eating, besides nourishment, is enjoyment. If it's so much that you are replete from doing it, how much would you enjoy it? You wouldn't be able to taste and savour the lovely local beef which I understand to be every bit as good as anything from Scotland. What a shame.
Katy Charles, London

The trick is to order it medium rare or less. If you cook the steak more than that, it's too dry and you'll drink water to compensate, which fills your stomach surprisingly quickly. That's what I've been told anyway. I've been a few times, and I've never taken the challenge. I'd rather watch; it's more fun than being uncomfortably full driving in a car for several more hours.
Kevin Frantze, San Diego, California, US

Tired of being faced with enormous meals when holidaying in the States several years ago, my wife and I found a solution. We explained that we were not big eaters and asked for a single main course served on two plates. Imagine our dismay when the waiter served the meal and proudly announced that as we were sharing they'd put some extra on - and we were again confronted by two enormous meals.
Stephen Bigland, Leighton Buzzard

I might be tempted to try the challenge myself, as I love steak: but if it's necessary to also eat the "trimmings" - ie fat, then that puts me right off the idea. Surely they should allow people to cut off the fat and just eat the good meat?
Chris Melville, London

They used to do the same thing at a pub between Leeds and Selby, I did it in 40 mins. I thought I was going to burst.
Neil Cheetham, Leeds

I find this conspicuous display of gluttony quite appalling. When there are millions starving and facing the death of their children, this morally offensive display does nothing to advance the cause of so called western civilisation. Stop stuffing your face with food you donít need. If you want to be famous for a food related act then send help to the people who have no food or water. Your reward will be longer lasting and less likely to make you and everyone else sick at the sight of your greed.
Paul, London

Only in America!
Robert C, Vienna, Austria

My husband and I ate at the Big Texas Steak Ranch last summer and even though neither of us attempted the 72oz challenge, we enjoyed it a lot - it's pure kitsch. The food is not amazing, but it's in good quantities at cheap prices. Even the cocktails are huge: 20oz (=1 UK pint). What your article doesn't mention is that there's a motel attached: with cow print bed spreads and other wonderfully Texan touches. We stayed in the motel and had breakfast at the restaurant the next morning. It was all you can eat with steak included in the normal line up.
Beth, London

Encouraging people to eat this amount of food is just disgusting. I visited the USA last year and felt physically sick at the sight of some of the grossly obese people there. Even people who, by American standards, didn't look exceptionally fat, would look enormous compared with most British people. It is virtually impossible to get what we consider a "normal" sized portion in the USA, and when restaurants are promoting these gargantuan portions, and treating this level of overeating as a game, it is no wonder that obesity is reaching such catastrophic levels.
Stevie D, Selby

I completed the challenge in Missouri in 1996 when I was 18. As well as the usual trimmings it included ice cream. I still have the T-shirt and many fond memories. True decadence.
Anthony Rose, Manchester

As one of a family of four during the war, I find such gluttony totally repulsive.
Alan, Wootton Bassett, UK

I think some people are being a bit dramatic talking about staring people and obesity - it is just a bit of fun, after all, and no-one is forcing anyone to have a go. It's a gimmick, don't take it too seriously.
Helen, Sheffield, UK

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