LOS ANGELES — On an April afternoon, 32-year-old Nguyen Tran of North Hollywood, Calif., stepped into a KFC in Los Angeles. After scrutinizing the menu board and glancing at the store's signage, he leaned across the counter and asked, in an almost conspiratorial voice: "Do you guys have that ... you know ... the Double Down?"
When the cashier nodded, 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 "Colonel's sauce" with two pieces of fried chicken.
Still at the counter, Tran, who is co-owner of downtown L.A. restaurant Starry Kitchen, posted his find to Twitter, making him one of the legion of thrill-eaters who share their gustatory derring-do on social media sites.
Most folks scratch their heads and ask "Why?"
Apparently a fair amount of other people rub their stomachs and head for the nearest drive-through. KFC reported last week that 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 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 with 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.
Piling it on
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 offers a portable version of its Grand Slam breakfast (more convenient to eat 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.
The chain's "Hooburrito," named in honor of the band Hoobastank, 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 portions are not new. Remember the hype about the turducken (a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey) or the 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)?
In an environment in which the First Lady has enlisted in the battle of the bulge by pledging to help end childhood obesity, it might seem appropriate that both the supply and demand of elephantine eats would decrease.
Harry Balzer, fast-food analyst for the NPD Group, says his research indicates the opposite. "In a 2001 survey, 65 percent of people said they ordered a burger that they defined as large — as compared to regular. As of February 2010, that percentage was 68 percent."
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. ... People equate value with larger portions."
Issues of manliness
Emanuel Maidenberg concurs. The associate clinical professor of psychiatry and clinical coordinator for UCLA's Anxiety Disorders Program says a bigger bang for the burger buck is not the only motive at work in the "pop culture phenomenon."
"Kids learn to associate large amounts of food with something that's manly, consistent with the image of being cool, and somewhat rebellious," Maidenberg said. "And fast-food marketers try to promote that."
In his 2006 book "Mindless Eating," food psychologist Brian Wansink detailed how men subconsciously equate appetite to masculinity. "It reminds me of that old joke," Wansink said. "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."