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On a stage in front of the open kitchen at the Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewery in Amarillo, an empty table looms above restaurant patrons enjoying warm meals on a rainy fall afternoon. At any moment, the table could become the center of attention—if only someone were to approach the kitchen and announce, “I want to eat the 72-ounce steak.” Once the steak is served, the digital clock on the wall behind the stage will start a 60-minute countdown. Spotlights will click on. Webcams will broadcast the challenge around the world. And diners in the 500-seat restaurant will look up from their beef and beer to watch and shout encouragement.
At the Big Texan, visitors from around the world attempt to eat the restaurant’s legendary steak dinner—4½ pounds of beef plus a salad, dinner roll, baked potato, side of beans and shrimp cocktail. If they can devour everything in an hour, it’s free. During an eight-week period that included Labor Day weekend in 2018, 150 travelers from as far away as Ukraine and Australia took the challenge. Just 14 succeeded.
“Disneyland has Mickey Mouse,” says Big Texan’s Bobby Lee, whose family has owned the Amarillo landmark for almost 60 years. “And we have the 72-ounce steak.”
Welcome to big food, Texas style. How about a pizza that’s 8 feet across? Or a 3-pound cinnamon roll? Or an eight-decker deli sandwich? Or a hamburger that includes a pound of bacon and a half-pound of cheese? If someone’s going to make such a colossus, you can bet someone will try to eat it.
“It was like, ‘Men of America, all the eyes are upon you,’ ” says Ed Montana of Amarillo, who finished the Big Texan steak dinner in 38 minutes during filming for the Travel Channel . “I didn’t want to let the side down. I had to finish it because macho men are meat eaters, right?
“It’s the wiry little guys you need to worry about when you’re watching someone try to finish the dinner,” Montana says. “The big guys, the 6-8 [tall] ones who look like offensive linemen, they don’t seem to do as well.”
High school and college students seem particularly fond of challenging the specialty of the house. But at Big Texan, more women finish the steak than men, even though more men attempt it.
At Mel’s Country Cafe in Tomball, north of Houston, the Mega Mel Burger, which starts with 1½ pounds of beef, has been on the menu in one form or another since 1994. “I honestly think that when people see how big it is, they feel a need to try and conquer it,” manager Sherry Pierce says. “And it’s just not the people who try to eat it—it’s the people who get excited about seeing people try to eat it.”
Big food, the larger-than-life dishes like the Big Texan’s steak, is not uniquely Texan. It’s not even uniquely American. A decade ago, a group of Spanish chefs combined 32 tons of rice, sausage and seafood to create a monster version of paella, Spain’s national dish.
But many Americans embrace big food enthusiastically. We watch TV shows about it. We visit restaurants to see it—as well as to eat it. Our enthusiasm for big food is not necessarily about gluttony. Rather, it’s about what Texas Tech sociologist Carol Lindquist calls “our culture of abundance.”
“Big food in particular is part of that,” she says, “the idea that bigger is better, a hypermanifestation of our American-ness.”
Our culture of abundance is unique in world history. We are, with a few notable exceptions, the only culture that has never endured famine, which Europeans have suffered through as recently as the 20th century and still occurs in some parts of the world.
“We think that our abundance—that we always have had enough food to eat—is normal,” Lindquist says. “But it’s not. The early European settlers, when they arrived, couldn’t believe what they found, all the wildlife and the forests and the food. It was remarkable coming from the old country, where that hadn’t been seen in centuries. So that’s one reason how our enthusiasm for ‘bigger is better’ started.”
The Mega Mel Burger is seven times taller than the average mouth can open. The Big Texan steak contains almost three times more calories than the federal government’s recommended daily allowance. The 20-scoop ice cream sundae at Dallas’ Hypnotic Emporium contains significantly more than the recommended daily allowance of fat.
Wallets take a hit just as diets do. The Mega Mel costs $24.95. The Mt. Hypnotic sundae costs $38, which can be refunded if you finish it in less than 30 minutes. The Big Texan steak is $72, and that’s only refunded if you meet the hour deadline.
But none of that seems to matter.
“I honestly think it’s about the spectacle,” says Kurt Oefinger of Hondo’s Dirt Road Cookers, whose specialty is an 8-foot pizza that starts with 25 pounds of flour and takes two hours to mix. Oefinger travels around the state, pizza oven in tow, creating his giant pies that include 3 pounds of pepperoni, 8 pounds of brisket, 6 pounds of sausage and 30 pounds of cheese. They cost $800–$1,500 and can feed as many as 150 people.
“As soon as they see that 8-foot pizza, everyone wants to dive in. But no one ever seems to be able to finish it, and there is always a lot left,” says Kassie Cox, Oefinger’s sister-in-law and an accountant for Medina Electric Cooperative in Hondo, west of San Antonio. “I’m not sure anyone knows exactly how big an 8-foot pizza is. It’s not like many people have seen one before.”
Learn more about writer Jeff Siegel at winecurmudgeon.com.