Imagine if McDonald's picked up your bill any time you managed to eat 10 Big Macs in an hour or less. What if Wendy's replaced its wimpy Baconator with an unstoppable meat-based assassin that could truly make your aorta explode—say, 20 strips of bacon instead of six, enough cheese slices to roof a house, and instead of two measly half-pound patties that look as emaciated as the Olsen twins, five pounds of the finest ground beef, with five pounds of fries on the side? Morgan Spurlock's liver would seek immediate long-term asylum at the nearest vegan co-op.
Alas, this spectacle will never come to pass. McDonald's, Wendy's, and the rest of their fast food brethren are far too cowed by their critics to commit such crimes against gastronomy. But you can get a free dinner with as many calories as 10 Big Macs at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, if you can eat a 72-ounce sirloin steak, a baked potato, a salad, a dinner roll, and a shrimp cocktail in 60 minutes or less. And if you're craving 10 pounds of junk food on a single plate, just go to Eagle's Deli in Boston, Massachusetts, where the 10-storey Challenge Burger rises so high you practically need a ladder to eat it.
Fast food makes such a savory scapegoat for our perpetual girth control failures that it's easy to forget we eat less than 20 percent of our meals at the Golden Arches and its ilk. It's also easy to forget that before America fell in love with cheap, convenient, standardized junk food, it loved cheap, convenient, independently deep-fried junk food.
During the first decades of the 20th century, lunch wagons, the predecessors to diners, were so popular that cities often passed regulations limiting their hours of operation. In 1952, three years before Ray Kroc franchised his first McDonald's, one out of four American adults was considered overweight; a New York Times editorial declared that obesity was "our nation's primary health problem." The idea that rootless corporate invaders derailed our healthy native diet may be chicken soup for the tubby trial lawyer's soul, but in reality overeating fatty, salty, sugar-laden food is as American as apple pie.
Nowhere is this truth dramatized more deliciously than in basic-cable fare like the Food Channel's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and the Travel Channel's World's Best Places to Pig Out. Watch these shows often enough, and your Trinitron may develop Type 2 diabetes. Big Macs and BK Stackers wouldn't even pass as hors d'oeuvres at these heart attack factories.
Yet unlike fast food chains, which are generally characterized as sterile hegemons that force-feed us like foie gras geese, these independently owned and operated greasy spoons are touted as the very (sclerosed) heart of whatever town they're situated in, the key to the region's unique flavor, and, ultimately, the essence of that great, multicultural melting pot that puts every homogenizing fast food fryolator to shame: America!
Instead of atomizing families and communities, dives and diners bring them together. Instead of tempting us with empty calories at cheap prices, they offer comfort food and honest value. Instead of destroying our health, they serve us greasy authenticity on platters the size of manhole covers.
As the patrons of these temples to cholesterol dig into sandwiches so big they could plug the Lincoln Tunnel, they always say the same thing. They've been coming to these places for years. They started out as kids accompanying their parents, and now they bring their kids with them.
While such scenes play out, you can't help but wonder: Doesn't that obesity lawsuit trailblazer John Banzhaf have cable? Shouldn't he be ejaculating torts out of every orifice upon witnessing such candid testimonies to the addictive power of old-timey diner fare? And more important: Shouldn't we thank our fast food chains for driving so many of these places out of business and thus limiting our exposure to chili burgers buried beneath landfills of onion rings? Were it not for the relative restraint of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, the jiggling behemoths who bruise the scales on The Biggest Loser each week might instead be our best candidates for America's Next Top Model.
Three years ago, when Supersize Me appeared in theaters and fast food replaced Osama bin Laden as the greatest threat to the American way of life, the industry sought refuge in fruit and yogurt cups and the bland, sensible countenance of Jared the Subway Guy. Today chains are still trying to sell the idea that they offer healthy choices to their customers; see, for example, Burger King's plans to sell apple sticks dolled up in French fry drag. But they're starting to reclaim their boldness too, provoking the wrath of would-be reformers once again.
Last summer, when McDonald's started selling supersized sodas under a wonderfully evocative pseudonym, the Hugo, it earned a prompt tsk-tsking from The New York Times. When Hardee's unveiled its latest affront to sensible eating, a 920-calorie breakfast burrito, the senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest derided it as "another lousy invention by a fast-food company." When San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford saw a TV commercial for Wendy's Baconator, he fulminated like a calorically correct Jerry Falwell: "Have the noxious fast-food titans not yet been forced to stop concocting vile products like this, or at least to dial down the garish marketing of their most ultra-toxic products, given how the vast majority of Americans have now learned (haven't they?) at least a tiny modicum about human health?"
Culinary reformers around the country have been trying to turn such microwaved rhetoric into reality. In New York City, health officials have been attempting to introduce a regulation that will require any restaurant that voluntarily publicizes nutritional information about its fare to post calorie counts on its menus and menu boards. Because most single-unit operations don't provide such information in any form, this requirement will apply mainly to fast food outlets and other chains. When a federal judge ruled against the city's original ordinance, city health officials went back for seconds, revising the proposal to comply with his ruling. If this revised proposal goes into effect, any chain that operates 15 or more restaurants under the same name nationally will have to post nutritional information on the menus and menu boards of the outlets it operates in New York City.
In Los Angeles, City Councilmember Jan Perry has been trying to get her colleagues to support an ordinance that would impose a moratorium on fast food chains in South L.A., where 28 percent of the 700,000 residents live in poverty and 45 percent of the 900 or so restaurants serve fast food. "The people don't want them, but when they don't have any other options, they may gravitate to what's there," Perry told the Los Angeles Times, gravitating toward juicy, flame-broiled delusion. Apparently her constituents are choking down Big Macs only because they've already eaten all the neighborhood cats and figure that lunch at McDonald's might be slightly less painful than starving to death. And how exactly will banning fast food outlets encourage Wolfgang Puck and Whole Foods Markets to set up shop in a part of town they've previously avoided? Is the threat of going head to head with Chicken McNuggets that much of a disincentive?
Suppose reformers like Perry get their wish and fast food chains are regulated out of existence. Would the diners and dives we celebrate on basic cable start serving five-pound veggie burgers with five pounds of kale on the side? Only diet hucksters and true chowhounds would benefit from a world where the local McDonald's gave way to places serving 72-ounce steaks and burgers that reach toward the heavens like Manhattan skyscrapers. The rest of us would be left longing for that bygone era when, on every block, you could pick up something relatively light and healthy, like a Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl's Jr.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.