You look pretty skinny, my waitress, Debbie, said.
I had just told her I wanted to challenge the Big Texan steakhouse's 72-ounce steak-eating contest. The restaurant had been baiting me for years with their billboards that lead to Amarillo from every direction, but now, I was going to earn a free steak the hard way.
Debbie brought a contract with the rules. I had to eat the steak (but not the gristle), a salad, a shrimp cocktail, a baked potato and a roll. I had to eat it all in an hour, or the steak was 50 bucks.
Debbie whispered hints to me. She promised to find the smallest potato and leave the croutons off the salad. She tried to convince me to occupy myself for forty minutes while the cook burned the hunk of beef on the grill.
We got a live rattlesnake in the gift shop, she said.
But, I needed to put my war-face on. I felt like a mile-runner in a marathon.
To build the pressure, another fella had just finished off the meal to the congratulations of the crowd. He was at least twice my size, and his undershirt stretched tightly around his belly.
At last, the steak came. Contenders sat on centerstage facing the responsible restauranteurs. The manager on duty, John, introduced me, and the crowd roared when I waved.
And, if he completes it in the hour, hell be an honorary Texan, because hell be full of bull, John said.
Then, it was on. I cut and ate. And cut. And ate. The steak would have been great in normal proportions, but it was as big around as my Accord's steering wheel and an inch thick. It could have fed my moms Thanksgiving table, even if we were having guests.
My war-face began to wear off. Why was I putting my body through this? When I ran an endurance race, I would focus my thoughts twenty feet in front of me, and ignore everything beyond that. I did the same with the steak.
More than 40,000 people have seen the wrong end of that steak. About one dreamer a day slings their pistols in the showdown, but only one succeeds in a normal week. A 98-pound lady has done it, and Frank Pastore, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds from 1979 to 1985, ate it in nine-and-a-half minutes. Professional wrestler Klondike Bill ate two meals in the hour, and two truckers once ate the steaks raw.
At first, I was embarrassed to be on stage with all those real Texans looking at me. I looked above their heads at the glass-eyed deer mounted on the wall. I am at best a Texan once removed, but when you challenge the 72-ounce steak, you're on the home team. When I looked at the crowd again, I could see people whispering bets to their neighbors, nodding and smiling.
If you see a real big guy come in and a tall, skinny guy come in, always put your money on the tall, skinny guy, said William, the General Manager.
Every five minutes, somebody would amble by the stage with encouraging words and a toothy, Texas smile.
Keep getting after it," one old-timer yelled at me. He and his wife had stayed 30 minutes after they paid their bill just to watch. "She couldnt even finish the six- ounce steak.
Children were daring each other to step on the stage for a closer look.
Can I do that, Mommy?
One day. When youre older.
According to folklore, the original big Texan didn't have anything to prove.
A cowboy came in and said, Im so hungry I could eat a cow. They kept feeding him steaks. When he was totally full, they added 10 more ounces which came to 72. That was Williams version.
Debbie pats me on the back. Honey, youve done good. You got further than a lot of people, but Ive got some bad news.
The cook estimated I had five ounces left on the steak, but I had not started on the side dishes.
Sometimes people win. Sometimes they dont. But, Its all for fun anyway, John said. The restaurant's band strolled over and played The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You. I'd come close. I had faced down the steak, and I felt like I had eaten enough for bragging rights.
# # #
I wrote this article and a companion piece on assignment for Southern Living in April 1997. For the articles, I visited the Big Texan steak house in Amarillo, Texas. I entered their 72-ounce steak-eating contest and later interviewed one of the owners. "The 72-ounce Steak Challenge is a first-person account of my attempt at eating the steak. After Dianne Young, Senior Writer, received the article she asked me to expand on some caption information I had provided and to write a second article. The two articles were slated to run next to each other in a special issue -- Texas Living: People and Places .