Recession Bargain or Fool's Challenge?

CLINTON, N.J. -- There's no such thing as a free lunch … or is there?

In these tough financial times, Americans are trying to save a buck any way they can.

And there's nothing like a free steak dinner, a free stack of pancakes or a free pizza. Several restaurants around the country offer such freebies. The catch: you need to wolf down gargantuan meals in a short amount of time. If you don't, you're stuck with a hefty check.

Consider the granddaddy of all challenges: the free 72-oz. steak challenge at the Big Texas Steak Ranch in Amarillo.

Diners at the Texas restaurant can get a 72-oz. top sirloin steak, a baked potato, salad, dinner roll and shrimp cocktail for free -- if they can finish it all in just 60 minutes. Failure brings a hefty $72 check. Winners get a T-shirt, a souvenir boot mug, a certificate and a spot on the "Wall of Fame."

Not bad, but since the challenge was started in 1960, nearly 50,000 people have attempted to consume the massive meal. Only 8,500 have managed to pass the test -- a 17 percent success rate. (And in case you were wondering, the record time was 8 minutes and 52 seconds.)

"That's almost five pounds of meat," said David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "For a lion, that's a reasonable meal."

50,000 people have attempted the Big Texas Steak Ranch's 72-oz steak challenge since 1960.

Katz warns that such a big meal could stretch out your stomach too much, tear your esophagus or lead to any of a host of other health problems. The diner must decide whether a free meal is worth risking $40,000 worth of emergency surgery.

"Whether it's a super-sized bargain in time of a recession or just a general notion that no blue-blooded American can resist that all-you-can-buffet, what we need to recognize is that -- at a time of epidemic obesity -- extra calories at no extra charge are not necessarily a bargain," Katz said. "This is an opportunity to get fat at no extra charge. Most people are willing to spend money to lose weight."

Diners have one hour to eat a 72-oz. sirloin steak, baked potato, salad, roll and shrimp cocktail.

Okay, that might be true, but there are plenty of these challenges across the country. Somebody must be trying them.

This reporter decided to become one of those people.

The 50-Pound Burger

The Clinton Station Diner can be found at an Interstate off-ramp in rural New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border. On a recent rainy day I ventured there because the 24-hour diner, which brews fresh coffee every 20 minutes, is also home of the Mt. Olympus: a 50-pound hamburger.

Yes, that's right: 50 pounds of beef on a homemade bun with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and more calories than you could ever imagine.

If five people can eat the burger in three hours or less it is free, plus the stuffed customers split a $1,000 prize. Otherwise, they have to pay the $159.95 bill.

Has anybody ever accomplished the feat?

"Not yet," said diner owner Mike Zambas. "They are trying though."

Having never participated in an eating contest or anything of the sort, I was not about to try this alone.

So I sought the advice of King George.

No, he isn't some British monarch; just a guy from Jersey who really likes food.

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