January 17, 2005 

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Teenager finishes world's largest burger

115-pound girl eats 11-pound monster;

Pub owner plans larger "Kate-burger"

By Pete Cilento
Foodmarket News

There are some records that may never be broken. Marino’s career passing yardage mark. Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a single game.

Then there are records we thought would never be set, the kind of gargantuan feats better suited to science fiction than reality. Daring to dream about these records is almost as audacious as trying to set them. And last week, one of them was shattered.

Kate Stelnick, a petite college student weighing in at 115 pounds, took the Denny’s Beer Barrel challenge on Wednesday. They almost laughed her out of the restaurant when she placed her order. Turns out she was the one laughing (and burping) on the way out.

No one had ever beaten Denny’s challenge. (See related Foodmarket story) No one had even come close. The requirements were absurdly outrageous: to eat 11 pounds of burger in under three hours, you’d have to be crazy, with an iron stomach and a mouth to match.

Eric Booker fit that description. They call him “Badlands,” and some say he is America’s top competitive eater. This is a man who had eaten four pounds of corn beef hash in 118 seconds. For dessert, Eric once put away 49 glazed donuts in eight minutes. It took me longer to drink my cup of coffee this morning.

But even Badlands was not up to Denny Leigey’s challenge. Leigey, the proprietor of Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pa., had a standing offer: finish his 11-pound burger -- the world’s largest commercially available -- and get that burger free, plus a slew of other prizes.

Badlands tried to finish the monstrous sandwich three times. The first two attempts failed miserably, but the third time was the charm. Badlands had finished the burger, but there was a catch. It had taken him over 7.5 hours to down the six pounds of beef and five pounds of fixings (See chart), well over the three-hour mark mandated by Denny.

Though Booker was the only person to ever finish the burger in one sitting, even he had not completed the challenge. Still, the accomplishment was substantial. Taking out the world’s largest burger in one sitting is a good outing even for a veteran competitive eater.

But Denny’s Wall of Fame remained empty. The wall, reserved for only the theoretical possibility of anyone actually completing the challenge, stood bare since the burger’s creation.

On Wednesday, a photograph was finally added to that wall.

Kate Stelnick had gotten wind of the burger the same way I had -- television. Observing the enormous entrée on the Food Network, Kate thought she could eat it. In one sitting. In three hours. And walk away.

It’s hard to say how seriously her two friends took her on the ride to Denny’s from the College of New Jersey, where 18-year-old Kate studies childhood education and psychology. Maybe it was a joke, a weekend lark in the waning days of winter break. But maybe, just maybe, Kate was serious about this thing. She had fasted for two days, drank "a lot" of beverages in preparation. The five-hour drive west was punctuated by the rumblings in her stomach and the determination in her eyes.

When she sat down with the burger, dancing with the devil himself, who can say if she knew she would finish it? How could anyone have suspected it, when legends have tried and legends have failed? Some call the burger the Widow(er) Maker, but luckily, Kate is not married. (She has, however, received dozens of marriage proposals after beating the burger, but as of press time has yet to accept any. Including mine.)

For over two hours Kate labored furiously to consume the beef and fixings that would make her name in history. As the vital third hour loomed, there was still beef on Kate’s plate. But the outcome was really never in doubt; the 18-year-old legend finished the burger with more than five minutes to spare. She wiped her face, stood up, then walked out the door and into the annals of posterity. She had just eaten a meal that was about one-tenth of her body weight.

The achievement was "pretty incredible," said pub owner Denny Leigey, "considering all the people who have attempted it."

"The skinny girls, they're just amazing at it," remarked Denny, referring to top American eater Sonya Thomas, and other slim women who've conquered lesser burgers.

Though she was overwhelmed with accolades and kudos after consuming the super-burger, Kate was afforded little respect before her attempt.

"When I first went in and kept saying I was going to do it, they'd smiled and be like 'oh yeah?'" Kate told Foodmarket.com.

"Then, during the last 25 minutes -- crunch time -- I overheard Denny's son at the bar say 'she's not going to do it,' and  'I've seen this so many times,' but I just smiled," recalled Kate.

"Little did he know he motivated me even more to do it," Kate spouted fiercely during our interview, emotionally back at the pub doing battle with the burger.

The wait staff described a similar scene. “When she first walked in, we didn’t think she’d get even close to it,” gushed Kristy, a DBB waitress. “Then when we looked over, she only had a little bit left, and we all got excited,” Kristy told Foodmarket.com.

When I asked Kate how she could have succeeded where Badlands Booker and countless others have failed, she said she had no particular eating strategy prepared.

"I had no strategy," admits Kate. "None.  I probably should have, but I just tried to eat as much as possible before I felt full." 

During the event, Kate did set time limits for herself.

"I said to myself, I must be done with the meat in one hour, 45 minutes, so I'd have enough time for the condiments," said Kate. 

That strategy almost backfired, however, before she abandoned it midway through the meal.  "You get sick of eating so much meat, only meat," she said. "I had to alternate."

Waitress Kristy was at a similar loss when asked how Kate had achieved the virtually unachievable.

“I don’t know how she did it," said Kristy. "She claims to eat eight full meals a day. Maybe that’s how she was able to do it."

Kate herself admits she eats "maybe four times a day."  She is known, however, as a big eater, by any measure.  "My friends joke around, saying I have a fat kid living inside of me," said the slim student. 

"I have a big appetite," Kate allows, "but I've never eaten this much in one sitting."

Maybe it was her big appetite. Or perhaps it was sheer will and a superhuman heart. One thing it definitely wasn’t is cheating. Despite the accusations of several Internet conspiracy theorists, Kate’s amazing feat was not staged, and she didn’t receive any illegal assistance in consuming the giant burger.

Kate told Foodmarket that she doesn't pay much attention to the rumors and unkind words scrawled on message boards around the Web.

"I just shake it off," she said," because I don't really care what people say. I'm proud I
did it, and I had fun."

Denny's Beer Barrel staff vouched for the validity of her valiant effort.

“We do not suspect foul play,” Kristy reassuringly assured me.

"She had no outside assistance whatsoever," confirmed Denny.  "She didn't even go to the restroom."

That in itself is worth the prize package, in my opinion.

Indeed, Denny made good on his word, paying for not only Kate’s burger, but the two others her friends ordered and could not finish. Denny also gave her a t-shirt, a $75 gift certificate, and a special plaque to hang forever on the now-vibrant Wall of Fame.

Now that the record has been broken, the challenge met, the hamburger vanquished and long-since digested, some say the legend of Denny’s burger has been diminished. Now that someone has eaten it, perhaps the burger has lost some of its considerable luster.

Not so, say DBB employees.

Denny told Foodmarket.com that he plans a special edition "Kateburger," which would be slightly larger than the burger Kate herself consumed.  He also may introduce vegetable and turkey-based versions of the 96-ounce beast, with identical challenge and prize structures.

Denny also attributes a revived interest in his giant burger to Kate's astounding feat, noting that her accomplishment "totally stirred up the food challengers around the world."

Waitress Kristy goes a step further,  deeming it inspiring that someone so small could eat a burger so big. “Hopefully more people will try it, now that they know it is possible,” she gushed.

But is it really? Maybe there is another Kate Stelnick out there, just salivating over the prospect of the world’s largest cheeseburger. Maybe there is a whole range of people, large and small, willing to gamble it all on the 11-pound challenge.

But for now, today, there is only one girl who has done it, only one girl worthy of lifting her cleaned plate in triumph for the world to see. Her name is Kate Stelnick, and she is the sole resident on the Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub Wall of Fame.

One can be certain that after attaining such a lofty status on Denny's wall, life for this young woman will never be the same.

"How this burger had changed my life!" Kate exclaimed.

The amount of attention astounded the once-shy, but now media-savvy university student.  Kate has done interviews for newspapers, Web sites, radio stations, and television programs.  Sponsors have even offered to give her all-expense-paid trips to various eating competitions with large cash prizes.

The eating competitions "sound interesting," said Kate, though she said she probably would not take the sponsors up on their offers.

"I don't think my parents would approve," she explained. "They didn't even want me to do this. I kind of snuck away for the day."

 She's also been flooded with phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages since word of her mega-meal spread this weekend. "It is unreal," explains Kate. "Every time I log on, there are so many messages.  It is too funny."

It's safe to say that this 11-pound burger has earned Kate a super-sized measure of fame for such a young woman.  But it's fairer to say that Kate earned it herself.  Though this burger has given Kate 15 minutes of fame, it's a safe bet it won't be her last time in the limelight.

One thing the burger didn't change was the plethora of ideas this young student has for her future. "I have 100 different plans," Kate gushed. Though she is studying education, she also aspires to be a professional skydiver.  She's already been on a few dives, though she says eating the burger was far more difficult.

Much to the delight of the competitive eating community, Kate hasn't ruled out a return to the fork and plate of destiny.  But even if she doesn't, she has already served to inspire so many not only to eat larger and larger hamburgers, but to achieve greater and greater goals.

Who’d have thought one girl, six pounds of beef, and a “river of mayonnaise” could change the world? We may be surprised, but Kate isn’t. She knew when she first saw the 96-ouncer on television that she would one day eat it. That day was Wednesday, January 12, 2005. Before then, no one had ever lived to beat the challenge.

And then, there was one.

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Copyright © 2005 Foodmarket.com
Foodmarket.com ● 732-240-5330 ● petec@foodmarket.com
images courtesy Kate Stelnick. used with permission.
eric booker image collected on the Internet, 2004.