There was a time when a piece of Cowboy Pie would have been enough. Made of butterscotch bits, shredded coconut and chocolate chips, this pie from Hill Country Chicken – the self-described “Fresh Fried Chicken Joint” — is a thing of beauty. It’s a candy bar in a pie — a candy bar goo-ily, gorgeously resting in a graham cracker crust.
But that was before the rise of stunt food. These days, cowboy pie isn’t nearly exciting enough to raise anyone’s eyebrows. So, at Hill Country Chicken, that piece of pie is now combined with three scoops of ice cream and half a cup of whole milk, poured into a blender, and mixed. Three or four quick bursts of the blender. The result is Cowboy Pie-shake.
It tastes like a milkshake. Made out of pie.
America’s favorite cowboy John Wayne never dreamt of anything like this, though Wylie Dufresne might have. The pie-shake is delicious, right down to the chunks of graham cracker crust resting in the bottom of the glass. And when you compare it to some of the other stunt food specialties in the modern American repertoire, it doesn’t even seem that crazy.
Stunt food is the newest gastronomic diversion of the dining world. Comprised of dramatic combinations of familiar and tasty ingredients, stunt foods are clever plays on traditional dishes with a twist. They have long been the domain of county fairs – just think back to chocolate covered cheesecake on a stick or hot beef sundaes — but are now a potent marketing tool and major money-maker. Fast food companies may be talking about salads and carrot sticks instead of French fries but they are dishing up specialties that give nutritionists nightmares. Nor does the average fast food company have to find new ingredients; it simply re-engineers its existing supplies in “new and exciting” taste combinations. Carl Jr. boasts a foot long hamburger you can wash down with Jones Bacon Soda. You can also indulge in the ominously named “meat munchkins” from Dunkin’ Donuts, which refer not to the disconcerting cannibalization of Oz’s tiniest residents, but to sausage wrapped in pancake and doused in maple syrup (the proper name is “Sausage Pancake Bites.”) And don’t forget KFC’s Double Down, where two pieces of fried chicken “sandwich” bacon and melted cheese.
The fast food industry is going to let your inner culinary cowboy run free.
Even small businesses are embracing stunt food. Consider the very recent and enormously popular Pumpple Cake produced by the Flying Monkey Bakery in Philadelphia. This delicacy places layers of apple and pumpkin pie between levels of chocolate and vanilla cake and coats it all with butter cream frosting. There are 1,800 calories in every slice.
“Of course it’s overly gluttonous,” says Elizabeth Halen, the owner of The Flying Monkey. “Most people love it. And then there is a smaller group who see it and are disgusted — people who say we’re singlehandedly contributing to diabetes. It’s not a health food! That’s not what it’s about. It’s about reinventing things we love in a new form. Everybody likes pie. Everyone likes cake.”
But not everyone is a fan of stunt food. Describing the Double Down for the New York Times Diner’s Journal Sam Sifton wrote that it is “a new low: a greasy entree dish of chicken with bacon and cheese on it, slathered in sauce, that the company asks customers to eat with their hands … It is, in all, a disgusting meal, a must-to-avoid.” However, judging by the millions sold, most people don’t care. And often, the messiness and the actual taste of the meal don’t even matter because these foods satisfy a primal urge to violate taboos. As children we always believed that when we grew up, we would eat ice cream for dinner. But now, as adults, we are constrained by common sense and dietary restrictions and fear of weight gain. Sometimes we need to break out, guns blazing, and scarf down a bacon cheeseburger on a deep-fried Krispy Kreme glazed donut bun — a “Luther,” as it’s called, an eponym of its purported inventor, singer-songwriter Luther Vandross.
The novelty may be what first drew our attention to stunt foods. And the descriptions of the dishes have a certain edgy shock value. But the familiarity and comfort of the ingredients are also part of the appeal; these are the kinds of food you fantasized about eating as a kid. Just as everybody likes pie and cake and milkshakes, everybody also enjoys hamburgers and sandwiches – perhaps the bigger the better. And from a marketing perspective, familiarity means there is no recognition war to be won. Not so long ago, McDonald’s introduced a fruit smoothie, accompanying it with an educational campaign showing fruit going into a blender. They did so because they imagined the rugged folk of the Midwest would not know what a smoothie was. (Some time prior, McDonald’s also explained the “latte” and may now be hard at work defining up-and-coming Italian delicacies like “pasta”). A giant hamburger doesn’t require this educational effort. If there’s to be a stand-off at the cuisine corral between kale and pie, then pie-shakes are going to bring all the Midwesterners to the stockyard. No one has to explain pie.
And the flavors of stunt food are still tempting to all but a very few. (Unfortunately for purveyors of stunt food, the very few include New York Times food critics.) It would make little sense to create a massive, oddly shaped concoction of healthy tofu and cabbage. It might be equivalently puzzling, but it wouldn’t be that appealing. Perhaps a master chef could make that choice exciting, but it’s a hard sell to a mass market. Fried chicken and bacon, on the other hand? That sells. Being well-educated about nutrition doesn’t stop fried chicken and bacon from being delicious. Everyone – well almost everyone – does like cake and pie and buttercream frosting.
Yet, more than just satisfying — really satisfying — a physical need, stunt foods satisfy a psychological need. As nutritionist Lauren Fagel points out, “I think the person who orders this is someone who wants the splurge. It’s the person who orders a 64 ounce beer. It’s a social thing. It’s for someone who wants bragging rights. People have had it with preachy nutrition advice and are going the other way.”
We’ve been told over and over again about the evils of eating fatty foods, eating sweet foods, overeating generally, or eating anything but single-digit-calorie superfoods. A Public Service announcement recently reminded viewers that they wouldn’t give their children heroin, so why would they give them a hamburger? That PSA may have prompted some parents to switch to lean chicken that night, but to many more it signaled that we are living in an age where hamburgers are considered on par with heroin. (The PSA creators did not consider the fact that children who eat hamburgers might grow up to have healthy eating habits, while children given heroin largely won’t have healthy eating habits when they grow up — because they’re probably dead.) The message provoked more outrage than contemplation. After seeing the video, one Internet commenter replied, “It’s too early for this shit, I haven’t even mainlined my first Crossan’wich yet.”
Anyone who owns a television is bombarded with advertisements reminding us that 100 rather than 80 calorie yogurt is downright decadent. Campbell’s runs commercials portraying women in a state of shock upon realizing that a can of soup contains 310 calories. (Fortunately, Campbell’s pared down version contains only 80 calories.) The Cookie Monster has been chowing down on fruit and eggplant since 2006, and explains that he eats cookies only sometimes, which seems to make him less of a monster and more of a blue-creature-with-an-occasional-penchant-for-dessert. Off-screen, a plate of cookies borne by Sarah Palin is enough to inspire debate about the extent to which she’s trying to overthrow the Democrats’ health plans. If eating cookies is enough to make you a maverick, imagine what eating a meat munchkin can do. If you’re going to break your diet, why just break it with a little ice cream? Go big. Let them eat Pumpple.
We live in a society where ways to rebel safely are ebbing away. Having a three martini lunch is the kind of behavior that will have you sent to rehab. You can still smoke, but only in the privacy of your own home or on a street corner. Sex qualifies as cardio (unless the condom breaks). Philip Morris’s philanthropic ad spots seem to indicate that they’re not interested in turning you into a cowboy, they just want to deliver some groceries to your grandma. And why do recreational drugs when your friendly doctor will prescribe perfectly legal pills? If you want to show that you’re a wild and crazy guy who plays by his own rules – and still wants to hold down a nine to five job – well, then there’s only one way to embrace your inner spirit. If Don Draper were around today he’d be hunched over his desk eating three Double Downs in a row.
The idea of food as something for maximum indulgence isn’t new. America is a country that has always loved to turn food into a test of machismo and hardiness. Much is made of the fact that Americans have never learned to savor food in the unhurried fashion of Europeans; there are entire diet books dedicated to learning to eat in a French manner. However, wanting to eat what we want, when we want to eat it, and as much of it as we want is part of our identity. There are few other countries whose inhabitants regularly partake in pie eating contests. And here, we commemorate Independence Day with a hot dog eating contest at Coney Island. It’s not the calorie count that’s kept stunt food from gaining popularity for so long. It’s simply that in the past, we had alternative ways to be a little dangerous. One healthy and well-educated connoisseur of food summarizes his stunt food obsession this way: “It’s a lot of fun to indulge. Everyone says how you have to eat, you have to count every calorie, you can’t do this . . . and this kind of food satisfies that part of human nature that says ‘I want to be bad.’” The last resort of the rugged individualist is here, and its name is “bacon soda.”
Is stunt food a uniquely American obsession then? Surprisingly not. As nutritional messages and dietary advice go global, so do their polar opposites. The PSA equating heroin to hamburgers ran in Australia. Meanwhile, Burger King is poised to unleash a “Nacho Whopper” on the Netherlands. As its name suggests, it is filled with jalapeños, tortilla chips, and salsa. The commercial for Nacho Whopper features a spaghetti-Western style cowboy.
The desire to be in touch with one’s bad-eating side seems to be universal. Richard Blakely recognized the growing stunt food obsession back in 2009. His popular website turned book, This Is Why You’re Fat, compiled pictures of frequently fattening but generally delicious stunt foods. He explains that submissions “were global almost immediately. Americans loved to bask in the spotlight of their creations and the international community wanted to point in amazement and disgust. However many creations did come from overseas. It was really like watching a confectionary car wreck, you just couldn’t turn away.”
All of this makes it seem like there’s something painfully prudish about subsisting on a diet of egg white omelets and low- fat dairy products. You don’t like stunt food? You can’t appreciate it? What are you, some kind of nerd? (Sifton!)
In fairness, we may not want to be bad, most of the time. While we may not liken hamburgers to heroin, and most of us do know what smoothies are. And we know that a smoothie is better for us than a slice of Pumpple, even if the pie-cake does contain fruit in a roundabout way. We may truly mean to be healthy. But health is so strongly associated with virtue, and it is human nature to long for vice. Grab that Cowboy Pie-shake and be an outlaw!
Can control, temperance and health consciousness triumph over indulgence, taste and diversion? There’s always another venue offering stunt food. You can’t help but be a bit curious. Go ahead. Place your order. Who wants to be sensible grilled chicken when you can be the kind of cowboy that’s filled with ice cream, coconut and chocolate chips?