An ode to America’s most iconic burger—and the man behind it.
I wanted a Big Mac.
But when I heard this morning about the death of Jim Delligatti, the McDonald’s franchisee who single-handedly invented the Big Mac nearly 50 years ago, I started to second guess my dietary snobbery.
Because this fast food patriarch, who lived to the ripe old age of 98, ate at least one Big Mac a week for years. Maybe even decades, according to his son.
How is that possible? It makes no sense. It’s like finding out that the guy who created crack-cocaine got super-high on crack-cocaine every weekend, and lived to 100.
So I’m going to try a Big Mac again. But this time, I’m going to try and actually taste it.
Nobody tastes a Big Mac. You don’t take your time to savor the flavors, like you would with a big, juicy steak.
You eat a Big Mac like you’re a raccoon eating out of a garbage can. You’ve got to do it fast, before the homeowners turn on the lights and chase you away with a broom.
Big Macs used to be ubiquitous. Back in the late 20th century, knowing somebody who didn’t eat Big Macs was akin to knowing somebody today who doesn’t have an email account.
But Big Macs don’t make the kids holla like they used to.
In fact, according to no lesser an authority than McDonald’s itself, only one in five Millennials has even tried a Big Mac.
They’re never once experienced (please sing it along with me, everybody who grew up in the 70s) “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”
Despite the generational diss, there’s still something magical about the Big Mac. The so-called “special sauce” hasn’t been a secret in years—it’s pretty much fancied-up thousand island dressing—but that didn’t stop somebody earlier this year from paying $95,000 (during an online auction for Ronald McDonald House Charities) for a single 25-ounce bottle of Big Mac special sauce.
That breaks down to approximately $3,800 per ounce of special sauce. Gold is currently $1,163 per ounce.
Need more proof that we’re living in weird times? Millennials think Big Macs are poison, but the Big Mac special sauce is worth more than gold.
Before my Big Mac lunch, I got a pep talk from Adam Moran, a 30-year-old competitive eater with the world record for Big Mac consumption. In 2015, he managed to scarf down 17 Big Macs in under an hour.
“Tell you the truth, they were harder to digest than anything else I’ve ever eaten,” Moran says. “And I eat a lot of garbage.”
“They also didn’t, um . . . pass out of me for about three days,” he said. “The sugar and salt definitely made me feel trippy, but I was in a lethargic junk food coma for a good few days after.”
This news only made me more anxious. And more confused about how a man could eat so many Big Macs and still make it to 98.
I walked to the Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s in Chicago, one of the most famous McDonald’s locations in the world. (I guess because sodium goes down easier if you’re looking at one of Elvis’ guitars?)
I was expecting a crowd. Shouldn’t this be where Big Mac loyalists are flocking, to hold hands and say a silent prayer for their fallen guru? Shouldn’t there be flower petals and grieving notes scattered near the registers, and teary-eyed people singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as they ate the saddest Big Mac of their lives?
At 12:10pm Central Time, the Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s was almost empty. It was just me and maybe six other customers, and two of them were sleeping homeless guys. I saw only one other person eating a Big Mac—an 82-year-old retiree and widower named Franklin, who told me he’d been eating Big Macs since the late 1970s.
“You can’t believe the media,” he told me. “They say Big Macs are bad for you, but I don’t know. Remember when eggs used to be bad for you? Now you’re supposed to eat six eggs a day. Doctors are prescribing bacon. You can’t trust half of what you read.”
To be fair, the Big Mac does get a bad rap. It’s the sandwich that everyone mentions when trying to prove that Americans are all fat.
But a 2015 report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found 100 chain restaurant salads that are considerably “worse” for you than a Big Mac.
Seemingly healthy-sounding meals like an Applebee’s Grilled Chicken Caesar, or a Friendly’s Spinach Salad with grilled salmon, have nearly twice the amount of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories as a Big Mac.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that a once-a-week Big Mac diet is a good idea.
Men’s Health nutrition advisor Mike Roussell, Ph.D., isn’t shocked that a man made it to 98 despite eating so many Big Macs, “as long as he ate moderately the rest of the time, got sufficient sleep, was active during the day, ate lots of vegetables, and managed his stress.”
But it’s still hard to swallow (pun intended). It’s one thing to say everything’s fine in moderation, but that makes more sense for things like red wine and chocolate.
A Big Mac isn’t even food. Read the fine print and you’ll find scary ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, propylene glycol alginate, and soy lecithin.
Eating a Big Mac every week makes as much health sense as smoking a single cigarette every week.
Sure, it’s better than chain-smoking a pack a day, but maybe you DON’T SMOKE AT ALL?
Isn’t not smoking or regularly putting high fructose corn syrup into your body the most common types of behavior for people who survive into their late 90s?
It comes down to genes, says Colleen Gerg, a Philadelphia-based registered dietitian. And dumb luck.
“Some people, albeit few, smoke all their lives and never develop lung or any other cancer. Some people engage in aerobic exercise all their lives and drop dead of a heart attack out on their morning run.”
You can’t choose, control or change your genes, Gerg says, “at least for now.”
But, she adds, some studies suggest that what you eat today could have long-term effects on your future children or grandchildren.
“Even if you’re not so ‘lucky’ —i.e., you don’t have the greatest genes—eating well may benefit them,” she says. “Who knows, maybe Jim Delligatti has his parents or grandparents to thank for his longevity genes?”
The moment of truth: I peeled open the Big Mac box, and there it was; as perfectly beige and beautifully symmetric as I remembered from my youth.
There were so many voices ricocheting through my head as I lifted it to my mouth.
I heard the nutritionists, telling me that a Big Mac isn’t going to be the thing that kills me, as long as my grandfather wasn’t a fan of trans-fats.
I heard competitive eater Adam Moran, telling that that if it weren’t for the taste of pickles, “I’d have got through at least 20 Big Macs.”
And I heard Franklin, in the booth next to me, still yammering about how the media can’t be trusted. “Mark my words, in another twenty years, we’re going to find out that Big Macs are better for you than kale.”
It tasted like . . . well, you know.
My mouth was singing with sweet nostalgia. But I could already hear my digestive tract growling angrily at me. “You’re going to pay for this later,” it rumbled.
I may not live to Delligatti’s glorious old age, but I know one thing. Tonight, I’ll be excavating my bowels with extreme prejudice just like a 98-year-old hamburger tycoon.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.]