KFC's newest creation is the Double Down, 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.
Last week, KFC reported that it will sell its 10 millionth Double Down before the month is out.
Why, with almost daily reports on the dangers of obesity and sodium, do some people appear bent on committing hamburger hara-kiri?
Poke around the Internet for assorted food porn, and you start to get an idea. There is a YouTube video of a guy ingesting an Octo Stacker, an off-menu meat mountain made from two Burger King BK Quad Stackers: eight hamburger patties and eight slices of cheese, each topped with bacon, for 1,860 calories, 130 grams of fat and 3,480 milligrams of sodium.
A hybrid customer-created sandwich, 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. IHOP's new Pancake Stackers intersperse buttermilk pancakes with layers of crustless cheesecake — smothered in fruit compote and whipped topping. The Pancake Stackers combo meal, with eggs, bacon and hash browns, has 1,250 calories.
Denny's offers a portable version of its Grand Slam breakfast called the Grand Slamwich, which crams scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, shaved ham, mayonnaise and American cheese between two slices of potato bread (grilled with a maple spice spread!) — with 1,320 calories.
At a time when the first lady has pledged to help end childhood obesity and the USDA food pyramid is only an iPhone app away, it might seem that both supply and demand of such elephantine eats would decrease.
Harry Balzer, fast-food analyst for the NPD Group, said his research indicates just the opposite.
Since 2001, he said, there has been an increase in the number of Americans who said they had ordered a large burger over a regular.
Balzer, who has tracked American eating habits for three decades, said 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."
Extreme is good marketing
But how do these caloric crimes make it to the menu in the first place? Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, gives two explanations.
"When you offer an extreme alternative, it makes the less egregious — but still halfway extreme alternative — seem reasonable," he said. "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 is 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."