Visitors planning a New Orleans eating spree have to be ruthless. They know only a fraction of the city's great meals will fit into a three-day weekend, so their strategy usually involves ranking must-haves (a Parkway po-boy! A Sazerac cupcake from Cake Cafe!) and sadly weeding out the next-times.
But what if you could eat it all? What if you could train your body to handle everything on your (food) bucket list?
Enter the stunt eaters. I spent a Sunday following them, and I was hoping that foodie visitors could learn from their triumphs - and any gut-wrenching regrets.
We started at Shula's steakhouse, where the famed NFL coach serves up a 48-ounce (three-pound) porterhouse steak.
"In college I was a machine," said LSU grad and local business owner Jason Feder, who would take on this meaty eating challenge. "A normal lunch for me was five double-stack burgers."
But that was years ago. And only a handful of people a year actually finish the 48-ouncer alone, said Shula's Chef Frank Pepper.
Even cooked medium-rare, the mammoth porterhouse took nearly an hour to come out. When it did, the bone-in slab easily towered over the five-ounce petite filet our table ordered as comparison.
"You have to keep [the challenge] under 15 minutes," said Pepper. "That's the time it takes for the stomach to tell the brain it's full."
Feder did it in 11 minutes, systematic and steady, finally gnawing at the porterhouse with his hands. Then he finished a two-cup side of coleslaw and a thick wedge of key lime pie, "just to show off." He'll be inducted into the 48-Ounce Club at Shula's with an honorary mention on the website.
What's his secret? "I have a natural ability," he said.
With his love of raw oysters, local Mike Morris was confident he could slide into Acme's 15 Dozen Club.
"Did you eat breakfast today?" an Acme shucker asked him.
"A waffle," said Morris.
"Nobody eats just one waffle," said the shucker sadly, shaking his head.
So began the grueling guzzle for Morris, in his first-time food challenge. He took the oysters three at a time at first, spritzing them with lemon and cocktail sauce, while onlookers cheered him on.
One fellow diner came up and started spraying dirty jokes, "which may have been funny if I didn't have half of the Seafood Festival in my stomach," Morris said.
Though the first few platters slid down easy, Morris was in distress by the 11th dozen. "I hit a wall where each oyster became harder to eat than the next," he said. "Whether you chew them or swallow them whole, the consistency is going to be the hurdle you have to clear."
Another hurdle was a ticking clock. Acme puts a one-hour time limit on competitors, and by the final bell Morris had slowed his pace and cleared 156 oysters - a heartbreaking two dozen away from winning the challenge.
"If I ever take another swipe at the title," said Morris, "I'll try to eat the largest oysters first. And I won't eat breakfast."
At the Creole Creamery on Prytania, Greg Roques (Where Y'at Creative Director) and Baton Rouge-resident Grady Savoie took on the Tchoupitoulas Challenge.
Finishing a trough filled with an eight-scoop sundae (plus eight mandatory toppings, glazed cherries and whipped cream) has a five percent success rate, our server said. "And if you puke, you have to clean it up," she added.
A glance at the bronze-covered Challengers' Wall showed that the time to beat was about 6.5 minutes. Photos of a grandma with her empty bowl taunted anyone who dared try.
Roques' strategy was to pick harmonious flavors of ice cream - a cup of salted caramel balanced by the smooth cup of Creole cream cheese. By the time the bowls came, glistening with sugar, he hadn't eaten in nearly 24 hours.
"I'm worried," Roques said, staring down the dairy. "I don't naturally eat this much."
Savoie ate his toppings first, spreading out the whipped cream. "I'll get sick at some point today," he predicted. "I just don't know when."
The guys ate at a steady but un-Feder-like pace, partly because they didn't want ice cream headaches. Eventually, they slowed out of sheer overload, hands hesitating as they lifted their spoons.
The pair looked so ill - pasty and a little delirious - that every innocent cough caused our table to nervously step away. "This was a bad idea," said Savoie, turning to Lil' Boosie on his iPhone for inspiration...or distraction.
With only spoonfuls left, Roques stalled completely. His only hope was to make the sickly sweet maraschino cherries palatable by slicing them.
"There's a point at which you have to finish, or what was it for?" Feder said, motivating Roques to down the last cherry juice at an hour and four minutes.
As Roques hoisted his bowl in the air, a crowd gathered to cheer on Savoie, who by now was in distress, and desperate he was using a straw. "They told me that if I didn't finish, I'd regret it the rest of my life," Savoie said. "I'm regretting it now." Nearly two hours into the challenge, he emptied his bowl, and much more.
Adam Richman's tips for extreme eating:
The host of Travel Channel's "Man vs. Food" has said that he exercises twice a day when he's traveling, and does cleanses between tapings. He won't eat at all the day before a food challenge, and he drinks a lot of water and club soda.
He also plans a recovery, depending on the sort of challenge he has (if it's quantity, then he does a lot of cardio after; if it's spicy, he's acknowledged that the only antidote for him is to "taste it twice").
Different food challenges in New Orleans (not all of them have rewards)
423 Canal St., open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Chocolate-covered crickets, cinnamon-sugared wax worms or banana-cricket fritters might be on the menu. Tuck in!
4924 Prytania St.
Tchoupitoulas Challenge: 8 scoops of ice cream, 8 toppings, garnished with whipped cream, wafers, cherries
Acme Oyster House
724 Iberville St.
To get into the 15 Dozen Club, eat 15 dozen raw oysters in one sitting.
Tag's Meat Market & Deli
1207 East Judge Perez Dr. in Chalmette
Their Papa Tag's burger weighs 1.5 pounds and is served on a muffuletta loaf.
Shula's Steak House
J.W. Marriott Hotel, 614 Canal St.
Finishing a 48-oz. Porterhouse steak gets you into Shula's 48-Oz. Club.
Izzo's Illegal Burrito
4316 Veterans Boulevard, Suite A/
The "Illegal" weighs 3 pounds; stuff it with rice, beans, cheese and meat, and your choice of toppings.
Bayou Hot Wings
416 Chartres St.
The Beast Challenge: Eat 10 of the hottest wings imaginable in under 5 minutes for a chance to be immortalized by having your picture featured on Bayou Hot Wing's Beast Wall.