Dr. Jon, the owner of the Heart Attack Grill calls himself. Jon Basso’s schtick is his menu: greasy burgers topped with cheese and bacon, malts with extra butterfat, Flatliner French fries dipped in lard, Coca-Cola made with pure cane sugar, unfiltered cigarettes, vodka Jell-O shots given in syringes. Food so bad for you it is pornographic, shocking the sensibilities and awakening the appetite. Customers don a hospital gown and wristband before eating; waitresses wear nurse uniforms and spank anyone who does not finish their plate. (You can buy the paddle afterward as a memento.)
Early on, Dr. Jon found himself a spokesperson, a 575-pound man who was a loyal customer. Then the guy dropped dead—at the age of twenty-nine. Dr. Jon kept his ashes at the restaurant and, prizing his own honesty, told reporters he relished the publicity. Then he closed the restaurant’s doors—and moved to Vegas. Where he amped up the menu, advertising (on a suitably huge neon sign) that anybody over 350 pounds eats free.
A year later, a man was carried out on a gurney and a woman lost consciousness while eating a double bypass burger, drinking a margarita, and smoking. The following year, a daily patron (this one in his fifties and not even overweight) had a fatal heart attack at the bus stop in front of the restaurant.
Now, Nikocado Avocado (not his real name) makes YouTube videos about the Heart Attack Grill. Formerly vegan, he set out to qualify for those free burgers and ballooned from a normal weight to pass that 350-pound goal. The day he steps on the scale at the Heart Attack Grill is one long drumroll, and his jubilation (once he regains his ability to breathe after climbing a few steps to the scale) is filmed for his channel. He then takes the octuple bypass challenge: eight half-pound burgers, forty strips of bacon, a whole onion, two tomatoes, eight servings of chili, sixteen slices of cheese, buns grilled in lard—19,900 calories.
Just watching, I want to throw up.
• • •
In 2014, the man now known as Nikocado Avocado weighed about 155 pounds and had a cute smile, a naturally dramatic camera presence. He was a classically trained violinist.
Then he began doing mukbangs. A genre of online videos, mukbangs spend unusually long periods of time showing people noisily eating gluttonous amounts of food, shoving supersized portions into their mouths and letting some of it slide down their cheeks and chin. Mukbangs draw a crowd. According to the calculations of another online guru, this one occupied by finding out how much the others are making, Nikocado Avocado pulls in about $576,000 a year from his 2.8 million subscribers and 615 million total views, just by gaining weight for us. He now presents himself as an ironic caricature, selling hoodies and T-shirts that say “I identify as skinny” (clutching his overhanging belly); “My weight is a medical mystery”; “It’s just water weight.” Sometimes he weeps on camera; at other times he lashes out, telling people who disapprove that it is their fault he looks this way.
• • •
My husband told me about the Heart Attack Grill years ago as a joke, because he was weary of me trying to clean up his diet and that French fry bar sounded like heaven. Road trip!
Back then, the place was in Chandler, Arizona, and more like a diner than a deathtrap. The new videos suggest something far more obnoxious, decadent, and salacious (the nurses bend over like pinup girls, patting away the perspiration as fat guys plow through their food). “I just watched a guy eat an octuple in four minutes,” Andrew says, emerging pale from his office after bingeing on Heart Attack Grill promos and obits.
To be fair, medical science does not suggest that a meal there is itself lethal; the real problem is the self-indulgent repetition, the absorption of more and more lard, the triumphant rebellion. “It’s so quintessentially American,” Andrew says in disgust. “No, it’s Roman.”
“It’s gladiatorial,” I snap.
But he shakes his head. “The gladiators were enslaved. They had no choice. These people are choosing this.”
I ask if he thinks this is self-indulgence or self-destruction.
“It’s even scarier than that,” he says slowly. “Death means less to them than money and a few minutes of fame.”
• • •
As I write this, an email pops up from Washington University’s medical campus. Staffing is so tight and the occupational health COVID team is so overloaded with calls, they are triaging, trying to keep essential positions filled as more and more healthcare workers get sick themselves. The COVID units are filling up again, and often the patients are overweight, therefore extra vulnerable to this particular virus.
Andrew is gone until late this evening; he is helping a good friend who has multiple health problems, all of which fight one another. The guy is overweight but cannot exercise until his leg wound heals, and it will not heal because he is diabetic and has cellulitis, and his circulation is terrible and massage would help but he also has deep vein thrombosis, so massage is not a good idea, and simply walking is painful, but he has to take care of his father, who is ninety-three with increasing memory loss. Our friend barely eats these days, but between a genetic predisposition, the inability to exercise, and the stubbornness of those fat cells, he cannot manage to lose much. He is deeply ashamed—he refers to himself as a fat fuck—and he does not want to be immobile or have to be taken care of; the idea appalls him. He believes that he will probably die soon. The Heart Attack Grill and its devotees do not amuse him.
Nor do they amuse aid workers at the World Health Organization. Hunger shot up last year, outpacing population growth worldwide. More than 149 million children under five are so undernourished that their growth has been stunted; more than 45 million have a skinny body, the skin almost translucent, hung across jutting bones, the flesh as wasted as a frail 95-year-old’s.
Parents used to lecture their kids to clean their plates because little children in Africa were starving. The smartasses would retort, “Then wrap it up and send it to them.” I would like to snatch an octuple bypass burger and do exactly that. It would keep a child fed for more than ten days. Nobody would die.
But would anybody click?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.