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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
In the classic Paul Newman movie, "Cool Hand Luke," the hero bets he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour.
The stomach-wrenching contest plays out on screen but every day there are restaurants offering up their own real-life food challenges.
The granddaddy of the current food challenge restaurants is likely the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, which offers diners a free 72-ounce steak meal. The only catch: You have to eat it in less than an hour.
"My dad had the idea in 1963," said Bobby Lee, son of the founder. "As a promotion, it's been a gold mine ever since."
The Big Texan is a Mecca for big eaters. "I was born in Amarillo," said Arnie Chapman, who runs the Association of Competitive Eaters (The organization promotes competitive eating as a sport and entertainment. It is also looking to establish standards in safety and practices.)
Chapman now lives in New York City and has "never eaten at The Big Texan. Before I fully retire from competitive eating, that's a must-try."
He'll have to have some appetitie to surpass the performance of former major leaguer Frank Pastore. The pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds would stop in annually at The Big Texan on his way to spring training. He never failed to put away the complete meal and he also set time records nearly every year.
"In May 1987 he did it in 9 minutes, 31 seconds," said Bobbie Lee. "It was probably the most incredible thing I've ever seen in my life."
See a gallery of 6 challenges from around the country.
For dainty eaters
If the thought of filling your stomach several times over lacks appeal, you can still partake of food challenges, as long as you have a great capacity for pain.
The food challenge at the Cluck-U Chicken, a chain of 30 or so restaurants in the Northeast, sounds like child's play. All you have to do is eat six chicken wings in five minutes. What could be easier?
Well, back up -- the wings must be accompanied by the restaurant's 911 sauce, made up of 16 different hot peppers, with the stress placed on the dreaded habanero? Do it and make the "Wall of Flame."
Why do they do it?
What makes people take on such belly-busting or throat-searing feats of gluttony. "Immaturity is definitely one of the reasons," Chapman said. He traces it to sitting around the school cafeteria with friends daring each other to eat something.
"Of course, there's the competitive aspect of it; guys take it pretty seriously," said Chapman. "But the challenges are interesting, and usually involve a road trip."
The most successful food challenges seem to involve an attainable goal. In contrast, hardly anyone dares tackle the 30" Pizza at Talayna's in St Louis, which Chapman estimates weighs a good 14 pounds. This despite the $1,000 reward for finishing one.
"We sell eight or nine everyday to groups," says owner Mehdi Rohani, "but only a few have tried to eat one by themselves."
One startling aspect of competitive eating these days is that so many of the best big eaters are themselves unbelievably small. The first person to eat an 11-pound Denny's Beer Barrel Pub burger (click here for that story) was a slender female college student, Kate "the Great" Stelnick, who weighs between 100 and 115 pounds.
Sonya Thomas, probably the No. 1 eater in the United States today, is no bigger than that and she set a record by downing seven 3/4–pound Thickburgers at a Hardees in Wisconsin in 10 minutes. Perhaps even more impressively, she ate 46 dozen -- that's right, 46 dozen -- oysters in 10 minutes at the Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans.
The Coney Island hot dog eating champ (53 1/2 Nathan's hot dogs in 12 minutes last year), Takeru Kobayashi, would, at 130 pounds, qualify as a junior welterweight.
Richard LeFevre, who ate TWO Big Texan steaks on the Donnie and Marie Osmond Show in 2000, tips the scales at 134 pounds.
For a look at some of the world's top restaurants click here.
To read about unusual roadside attractions, click here.
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