Sandi Wheaton's photographic journey from Chicago to LA with a Jeep, an Aliner trailer and a bunch of cameras

FREE MEAT


Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Ice.  Not in my drink, on my Aliner.  And I am in Texas.  W.. T.. F…  I ask you…??!  It’s going to be below zero tonight and they’re calling for a mix of ice and snowy rain.  Charming, especially for a Canadian who came south expecting sunny skies and shorts weather.

"Tiny" or "Moo-Moo" advertising the Big Texan's famous challenge

Big Cow advertising the Big Texan's famous challenge

Fortunately I have the fuel in me to keep warm.  I am in Amarillo, Texas – and you know what that means: the Big Texan Steak Ranch.  Everyone knows that everything is big in Texas, including the steaks… but: 72 ounces?  Yes, Amarillo, TX is the home of the free 72 oz steak dinner – if eaten in under an hour.  While I was there, I got to witness three men do it.  And none of them threw up.

the 72 oz steak dinner, free if eaten in under an hour

the 72 oz steak dinner, free if eaten in under an hour

OK, time for the back story on this…  R. J. “Bob” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch on Route 66 in 1960, and the place continues to be a major culinary stop along the Route, even though it’s no longer actually on Route 66.  There’s a sound reason for its notoriety: free (good!) food.  History has it – and I quote from my plastic water cup – “that a table full of hungry cowboys competed for Big Texan bragging rights by eating 1-pound steaks over a 1 hour period of time.  When the hour ended, 1 cowboy had eaten four and a half 1-pound steaks (72 oz), shrimp cocktail, salad, baked potato and bread.  Lee grinned and vowed from that day forward the dinner would be FREE to anyone who could eat it in 1 hour.”  What if you can’t get through it in that time?  That’ll be a buck an ounce, please and thank you.

Even if you’re not hungry or not a meat eater… aren’t you curious?  It’s worth stopping in just to see the display of food that need be consumed to meet this challenge.  The steak itself looks to be the size of both my lungs.  And you’ve gotta plow through a salad, baked potato, three fried shrimp and a dinner roll to boot.  The meal is all laid out on display when you walk in the lobby – and its eaters are on display when you walk into the restaurant.  Anyone attempting “the steak” sits on a raised, spot lit table for all to ogle as they chew and chew and chew and chew… all the while with a countdown clock ticking away the hour at the head of the table.

eight attempts at "the steak" from DIFS members

eight attempts at "the steak" from DIFS members

When I arrived, eight men from the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service were working through the meal.  Two made it.  I asked a woman in their group whether it was some fundraising challenge or something.  She replied, “Nope!  We just thought we’d come up from Dallas and see if we could get ‘er done.”  I am growing very fond of these sorts of southern responses.  For example, when I asked one of the entertainers who serenaded me tableside with “Down the Road” how long he’d been doing this, he said: “Oh, since 6:30.”  Which reminded me of Richard from the Lazy J RV Park in Missouri when he gave me a huge bag of mustard greens from his garden to try.  How long should I boil them?  “…(shrug)… ‘til they’re done.”

But I digress.  Here are some stats for you:

Most eaten: in 1963, a pro wrestler named Klondike Bill got through not one but two of the 72 oz steaks in the hour time limit.

Oldest to do it: a 69-year-old grandmother.  (Youngest?  11-year-old boy.)

And the fastest time was 8 minutes 52 seconds, by World Hot Dog Eating Champ Joey Chestnut.

Apparently anywhere from 1-20 people try it every day.  The success rate average is about 1 in 6.

a lone challenger begins

a lone challenger begins - he finished the dinner with 3:03 remaining

They moved the restaurant next to I-40 back in 1970, when Route 66 was bypassed by the interstate system in this area.  It was either that, or suffer “death by interstate” (to quote Michael Wallis, author of Route 66: The Mother Road).

Big Texan manager Mike Magill and the free long-horned shuttle limo

Big Texan manager Mike Magill and the free long-horned shuttle limo

But they’ve not only survived, they’re flourishing.  Good customer service and smart offerings ensure loyalty: they provide free shuttle service to and from any hotel in the city (in a limo adorned with long horns on the hood, no less), have a “Dawgy Corral” for dogs, and a “Horse Hotel” for those traveling with horses.  Oh, and there’s a western-themed hotel for humans too – with a Texas-shaped pool and saloon-styled doors leading to the bathrooms.

The Big Texan does a lot right, but the steak is where they shine.  They dry age their own meat, and steaks are cut as close to cooking time as possible by the full-time meat cutter, to ensure freshness.  I have to say that the 12 oz rib eye I had – the *smallest size* of that cut on the menu, by the way, three more sizes up from that – was divine.  Served swimming in prime rib au jus sauce and smothered in fried onions, this was likely the most flavorful steak I have ever eaten.  And it was cooked perfectly.

my 12 oz prime rib, in au jus w/onions

my 12 oz prime rib, in au jus w/onions

Now that I’ve peaked your appetite, let me ruin it.  Barfing diners are an occupational hazard if you work here, or if you dine close to the stage table.  According to manager Mike Magill, lost cookies is a common occurrence (you’ll see a waste bucket at the head of the table, opposite the countdown clock).  He told me about a colleague who once had to go to the hotel next door to shower after being hit in the hair by someone who couldn’t keep the big steak down.  And then there was the time five football players made their group attempt.  When the hour was up, they rose in celebration and announced, “now for the encore” – and all puked on purpose.  Guests ran for cover, ran for the washroom, ran outdoors…  “yep, we had everyone in the bathroom, the parking lot was just full of people…” muses Mike.  “It’s gross, but it’s funny too.  You have to laugh.”

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