Flash in the Pan 

The Fat-tea party

The burgers are free—all day, every day—at the Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Ariz. The only catch is you have to weigh at least 350 pounds. The fake nurse who weighs you is young, hot and female. All guests, regardless of weight, are called "patients," and are "admitted" by the "nurses," who dress them in bibs that look like hospital gowns. Strategically placed mirrors behind the counter provide patients with heart-stopping views of fake-nurse crotch.

The menu includes unfiltered cigarettes and milkshakes reputed to have the highest fat content in the world, but burgers are the main attraction. They range from the Single through the Quadruple Bypass, based on the number of patties they contain, with two pieces of cheese for each patty, between buns shiny with lard. If you finish an 8,000-calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger, a fake nurse will push you by wheelchair all the way to your car. On a recent visit, Zach Fowle of the Phoenix New Times reported watching one customer eat two Quadruples.

"The guy has the meat sweats and looks like he might spew at any minute. It's a good thing he's getting wheeled out, because it looks like he can barely walk," Fowle observed.

The burgers come with all-you-can-eat "Flatliner Fries," which are cooked in lard and smothered with cheese and/or gravy.

In every fiber of its being (perhaps fiber is the wrong word), the Heart Attack Grill is a one-fingered salute to the health food movement. That's the idea anyway, according to owner Jon Basso.

A former Jenny Craig weight-loss program franchisee, Basso claims to have eaten a Double Bypass burger every day for the last five years without gaining a pound. Lean physique notwithstanding, Basso considers himself a trailblazer in the rebellion against healthy eating and the development of shameless cholesterol bombs like KFC's Double Down sandwich and Friendly's Grilled Cheese Burger Melt, which features dual grilled cheese sandwiches in lieu of buns.

"I view myself, not as an originator, but to have been the key driving force of this trend. The Heart Attack Grill hit with BIG international publicity in 2006, which gave other restaurateurs the courage to put something of gigantic proportions on their menus," Basso told me via e-mail.

Other restaurants have tried to mimic Basso's medical-themed, death-courting business model, and he's sued them all, including establishments like "Heart Stopper Burgers" and the "Flatline Grill." So far he's successfully forced copycats to quit using fake naughty nurses to sell, and celebrate, obscenely unhealthy burgers.

The health food movement began early in the last century in response to a newly industrialized food system that valued flavor and the economics of scale over the health consequences of its products. White bread, sugar, meat and fat were some of the movement's prime targets. Many of those same foods are now at the core of a new crusade that, for lack of a better term, I'll call the "sick food movement." While the health food movement was a sincere attempt to reform a system that seemed indifferent to health, the sick food movement is a cynical response to any attempt to encourage healthy eating.

The sick food movement has parallels to the Tea Party in that both draw on deep wells of vague dissatisfaction, and both are less articulate about what they're for than what they're against. The common ground is hinted at in the tax line on Heart Attack Grill's receipts, which reads "Obama's Cut." Like many Tea Party talking points, in which relationship with reality is optional, "Obama's Cut" is a flat-out lie—sales tax has always been state-imposed and not federal. Nonetheless, given that Michelle Obama has made healthy eating one of her pet projects, and that President Obama's health care bill has a substantial prevention component, eating poorly has become a patriotic act and rallying cry in the minds of Obama's political opponents.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

"Get away from my french fries, Mrs. Obama," warned Glenn Beck at a recent Tea Party event in Illinois. "First politician that comes up to me with a carrot stick, I've got a place for it. And it's not in my tummy."

As the Tea Party's name reminds, we've been a nation of rebels since long before Obama started pushing his supposedly socialist health food agenda. Our very identity was formed around telling England to buzz off, and from a young age many Americans seem to comprehend the pleasures of doing exactly the opposite of what we're told to do. And we're a nation built by daredevils, many of whom arrived here after blindly embarking for distant shores. We know, somewhere deep in our genes, that the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

But the reward for stuffing yourself to the point of needing a wheelchair ride to the car is limited to bragging rights, the kind of faux-heroism celebrated in competitive eating events and TV shows like "Man v. Food." Offering free food to fat people ups the ante by providing a financial reward for obesity.

I asked Basso if he's intentionally trying to pack his restaurant with fat people in order to create an environment where obesity is okay, and people feel comfortable being gluttonous. He responded on PC-laced moral grounds. "Many of my very best friends are obese, and the sad fact is that they are picked upon in the same way the homosexual community used to be."

Basso's free-food-for-fat-people policy is a calculated risk. He doesn't advertise, so the attention it draws is especially good for business, as is the restaurant's fat-friendly ambiance. But the policy also creates the intriguing possibility that some "patients" who are already within gulping-distance of 350 pounds will make a calculation of their own: You spend X dollars in order to buy enough Quadruple Bypass burgers to put you over 350 pounds, then you can be done spending money on food. This makes gluttony more than a patriotic exercise in personal freedom. It's an investment. What could be more American?

There is, of course, a solid argument to be made that efforts to improve America's eating habits would be a good investment for the country as well. Alas, I can already hear howls of protest from the Fat-tea activists: "First they'll take away our grease, then they'll come for our guns."

Ask Ari: Potato problem

Q: Dear Ari,

For the second straight season, my small, 10-plant potato patch has shriveled up and died in late summer, yet there are still potatoes growing underground. What's the deal? How do I save the above-ground plants, or is there even any reason to?

—Mr. Potato Head

A: Dear Potato Head,

It's possible a potato disease is involved, and you raised a red flag by implying that you grew two successive crops of potatoes in the same spot, which is a no-no due to the possibility of disease transmission. However, aside from your alarm, the circumstances you describe are perfectly normal. Potato plants flower in midsummer and begin making potatoes. In late summer the plants die back. You don't want to prevent the above-ground plants from dying—in fact, if they're still alive in September you'll want to cut them back, since the plant has to die before the potatoes can begin curing, a process that makes them storable.

When the plants have completely died, that's your cue to start digging up spuds. But there's no hurry—if you wait a few weeks before digging them up, the potatoes will just be better suited for storage.

Start digging, ideally with a pitchfork, about a foot from the edge of the patch, and methodically work your way through it, including a foot-wide perimeter all around the patch. Sift each upturned pile of dirt by hand to find all the potatoes, and then dig some more. Always work from the already-dug side, digging deeply and lifting from below to avoid skewering any with your fork. As you loosen the soil around each dead plant, pull it gently up. Some of the potatoes will still be attached to the roots for some easy pickings—just lift up the plant and pull the spuds off the roots.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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