Adventures in eating
In the late afternoon of April 12, 32-year-old Nguyen Tran of North Hollywood stepped into the KFC at the corner of Witmer and West 6th streets near downtown Los Angeles. After a few minutes of scrutinizing the menu board, and glancing at the store’s signage, he leaned across the counter and asked the man behind the counter, in an almost conspiratorial voice: “Do you guys have that … you know … the Double Down?”
When the cashier tentatively bobbed his head in affirmation, Tran pumped his fist in the air, uttered an excited “Sweet!” and placed his first order for the chain’s newest creation: a bizarre sandwich made by bookending slices of melted Monterey jack and pepper jack cheese, two slices of bacon and a mysterious “Colonel’s sauce” with two pieces of fried chicken.
And then, while still at the counter, Tran, who is co-owner of downtown L.A. restaurant Starry Kitchen (with his wife, who is the chef), posted about it to Twitter, making him one of the legion of thrill-eaters who share their gustatory feats of derring-do on social media sites.
Upon news of such outlandish eats, most folks scratch their heads and ask “Why?” But there are some who rub their stomachs and say “Whoa!” and head for the nearest drive-through. And there’s apparently a lot more of the latter than you might imagine. Last week KFC reported it will sell its 10 millionth Double Down before the month is out.
Who are these people? And why, when armed with almost daily reports on the dangers of obesity and sodium, does a certain segment of the population appear to be bent on committing hara-kiri by hamburger?
Poke around the Internet to look at the assortment of hard-core food porn and you start to get an idea. There are photos of an In-N-Out Burger 100 by 100 (supposedly a bachelor party order, the finished product looks like a skinned python) and a YouTube video of a guy who tries to ingest an Octo Stacker (that’s an off-menu meat mountain made by cobbling together two Burger King BK Quad Stackers — for a total of eight hamburger patties, eight slices of cheese topped with bacon and representing 1,860 calories, 130 grams of fat and 3,480 milligrams of sodium).
Set to the music from the “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack, he finally conquers it, but only after enlisting the aid of a spoon.
A hybrid customer-created sandwich, whose McName can’t be printed in a family newspaper, made by stuffing a McChicken sandwich inside a McDonald’s double cheeseburger, has earned an entry in an online urban dictionary and its own Facebook page.
The legitimate on-menu items are only slightly less heart-stopping, such as IHOP’s new Pancake Stackers, which intersperses buttermilk pancakes with layers of crustless cheesecake — and smothers it all in fruit compote and whipped topping. The Pancake Stackers combo meal with eggs, bacon and hash browns amounts to 1,250 calories. Denny’s now offers a portable version of its Grand Slam breakfast (presumably to make it more convenient to consume en route to your angioplasty) called the Grand Slamwich, which crams scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, shaved ham, mayonnaise and American cheese between two slices of potato bread (themselves grilled with a maple spice spread!) — a double-fistful that clocks in at 1,320 calories.
And if that fails to quell your appetite, may we suggest Denny’s “Hooburrito.” A burrito named in honor of the band Hoobastank, it wraps spicy chicken strips, onion crispers, pepper jack cheese, cheese sauce and barbecue sauce in a tortilla, weighs in at more than a pound and represents 1,430 calories and 67 fat grams.
Jaw-dropping (make that jaw-dislocating) portions have probably been around since Thag stumbled across his first whole forest-fire roasted wildebeest, and who among us hasn’t wondered — at least for a moment — what it would be like to gorge on turducken (a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey) or inhale an entire Fool’s Gold Loaf sandwich (an Elvis Presley favorite consisting of a pound of fried bacon, a jar each of peanut butter and jelly all crammed into a hollowed out loaf of bread) or dine on the local delicacy known as an Oki dog — two foot-long hot dogs and a handful of deep-fried pastrami smothered in chili and cheese bundled in a tortilla the size of a hubcap?
In an environment in which the First Lady has enlisted in the battle of the bulge by pledging to help end childhood obesity, and the USDA food pyramid is only an iPhone app away, it might seem appropriate that both the supply and demand of such elephantine eats would decrease.
Harry Balzer, fast-food analyst for the NPD Group, says his research indicates just the opposite. “In a 2001 survey, 65% of people said they ordered a burger that they defined as large — as compared to regular. As of February 2010, that percentage was 68%.”
Balzer, who has tracked American eating habits for the last three decades, thinks there’s more at work than hedonistic hankering. “Yes, there are a lot of larger burger options,” he said. “But there are also some smaller options too — like McDonald’s Mac Snack Wrap or burger sliders. I think the key thing is novelty. People are always going to want something new — or in the case of fast food, new versions of the things they are familiar with.”
Key to stoking the demand for Flintstone-sized fast foods is a notion of value, Balzer says. “People equate value with larger portions, and this is a way they perceive of getting more for their money.”
Emanuel Maidenberg concurs. The associate clinical professor of psychiatry and clinical coordinator for UCLA’s Anxiety Disorders Program cites the desire for a bigger bang from the burger buck as a motivating factor, but it’s not the only one.
“It’s become a pop culture phenomenon,” Maidenberg said. “Kids learn to associate large amounts of food with something that’s manly, consistent with the image of being cool, and somewhat rebellious. And fast-food marketers try to promote that rebellious angle.”
In his 2006 book “Mindless Eating,” food psychologist Brian Wansink detailed how men subconsciously equate appetite to masculinity by offering male subjects descriptions of two hypothetical movie dates: one in which the guy on the date eats a couple of handfuls of his movie popcorn, and another in which he eats almost the entire bucket. In a follow-up survey, participants estimated the fellow in the second hypothetical “could bench-press an average of 21 more pounds,” Wansink wrote.
“It reminds me of that old joke,” Wansink said in an interview recently. “Why did the Egyptians build the pyramids? To impress their girlfriends. That summarizes for me why most guys do stupid things: to impress, if not their girlfriends, somebody — maybe even themselves — and to inject some adventurousness into their otherwise boring and insipid lives.”
So if that explains the demand side of offensively over-the-top offerings, how do we reconcile the supply side? How do these caloric crimes against humanity make it to the menu in the first place? Wansink gives two explanations.
“When you offer an extreme alternative, it makes the less egregious — but still halfway extreme alternative — seem reasonable,” he explained. “When Burger King came out with its [Triple Whopper], people freaked out about it. I don’t know if they ever intended to sell any of those, but it certainly made the [Double Whopper] seem reasonable by comparison.”
The second reason taps directly into the social media hype. “Even if nobody buys even one [KFC] Double Down — ever — it still brings new life to a fairly mature fried chicken market. Especially when the news is something that’s stunning. You find yourself talking about it, you’re paying attention to the commercials, and you might even be motivated to go to KFC — even if you’re not going to eat a Double Down — because you’re thinking about it again.”
So, six weeks after launch, has Tran doubled-down and consumed a second KFC Double Down?
“No,” Tran said, before quickly correcting himself.
“Wait — that’s not true. But that’s only because that day I bought two Double Downs, ate one and gave the other one to my wife. She took a bite and didn’t want it, gave it to her sous chef, he took a bite and didn’t want it, so I ate the rest.”
“I’m one of those guys who hates to see things go to waste — even if they’re bad.”
Tran’s taste buds aside, KFC’s clearly doubling down on the bet that its freakish foodstuff will give some wings to its bottom line. Last week it announced that the limited-time offering — which was set to disappear May 23 — will remain on the menu for an extended period of time.
Which is probably good news for thrill-seeking food faddists, and very bad news for chickens.
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