The Fascination of Fat

The doctor peers into a monitor, watching a video X-ray of a human heart.

Blood flows through the knotted vessels, then hits a throbbing snag — a clogged artery.

Dr. Michael Bentley-Taylor has stared into thousands of plugged hearts in the cardio cathlab at Toronto East General Hospital. But this one is particularly bad.

Ninety-eight per cent blockage, he might surmise, major disease.

Now let's get some pizza.

No amount of cardio carnage can quell Bentley-Taylor's passion for fatty foods. Same goes for the rest of the world. No matter how much the experts preach lean living, we're still riding the gravy train. From the griddle to the grave, we're blubber-munching lard lovers.

Proof is at Dangerous Dan's.

Keith Beaty/Toronto Star  
Dangerous Dan's owner James McKinnon created the Coronary Burger after his dad's heart attack. It was meant as a joke but now he sells 50 a week.

Inside the Queen St. E. restaurant, chef James McKinnon is grilling two 8-ounce cheese-slathered beef patties, four slices of bacon, and frying an egg. No, it's not a meal for four. It's the ingredients of his Coronary Burger — and it's soon to be accompanied by mayonnaise and the rest of the fixings. Fries and gravy and a Pepsi are the chaser.

Inside the Queen St. E. restaurant, chef James McKinnon is grilling two 8-ounce cheese-slathered beef patties, four slices of bacon, and frying an egg. No, it's not a meal for four. It's the ingredients of his Coronary Burger — and it's soon to be accompanied by mayonnaise and the rest of the fixings. Fries and gravy and a Pepsi are the chaser.

In Brooklyn, Christopher Sell is getting famous for deep frying Twinkies, while 7-year-old Emily McComas wins a recipe contest in California by embellishing her peanut butter sandwich with chocolate chips, crispy rice cereal, powdered sugar and dried cherries.

And in my own kitchen, my female housemates gaze in morbid fascination as I deep fry baked beans in bacon fat.

Where there's grease, greedy little humans aren't far behind.

"There's no doubt that all of us are weak-willed when it comes to food," says Bentley-Taylor. "We know what's right, but seldom do it. Partly it's availability and part of it is the natural pleasure of life. We'd rather have that pizza."

Bentley-Taylor's says the cheesy snack works with his hectic schedule. He'll conduct 10 angiograms in a morning before doing his rounds — and he needs something that he can take on the run. But a heart doctor eating pizza? Shouldn't he be nibbling rice wafers?

"People look at me and say look at what that wretched cardiologist is eating."

"I have a warm, full feeling in my stomach when I eat pizza," Bentley-Taylor says. "I don't get a pain in my chest — if I did, I'd quit. I won't pretend that I don't slip up at times, but I do it much less than I used to."

Of course, the doctor expresses profound concern for our culture of overeating, which he says leads to diabetes and eventually, heart disease. B.T., as he's known at the hospital, says the problem has more to do with how much we eat than what we eat.

That's why B.T. has cut back on junk food in recent years. But even a moderate amount of pizza can bite back.

After experiencing chest pain a few weeks ago, B.T. had an angiogram that revealed minor disease in his blood vessels. So he doesn't take the effects of bad eating lightly.

But when he sees that glistening breakfast platter ...

"I went to England in August to see my father when he was sick," he remembers. "And the breakfasts ... eggs, sausage, bacon. It's appalling in terms of health, but let's be honest — it's lovely. Nothing's better than a breakfast like that."

Not far from where B.T. plowed into those daunting meals is Glasgow. It's no coincidence that in 1999, Dundee University named it the world's capital for heart attacks. It's a dubious honour, but there's company at the top of the fat charts.

For the second consecutive year, Houston has been named America's fattest city by Men's Fitness Magazine. In Canada, if you're looking for lard in all the wrong places, point your belly towards St. Catharines. According to Statistics Canada 2001, it's Canada's fattest city — 57.3 per cent of the population is overweight or obese.

Executives at Dangerous Dan's take heed — these places are your target markets should you decide to expand.

McKinnon, owner and chef at the eatery, created the burger as a joke. His father had had a heart attack and was coming to visit the restaurant for the first time since his hospital stay. McKinnon invented the burger and put in on the menu to razz his dad. "We had a few beers one night and came up with the silliest thing we could think of. We decided to throw an egg on it just to be the pièce de résistance."

Now he's selling 50 Coronary Burgers a week. Two of those were served to Food Dude Jon Filson and me a few days ago. We're still recovering.

Because you don't eat this thing — you excavate it. Fifteen minutes into working on the beast, the Food Dude pulled the burger away from his face and announced, "I just hit egg." Later, in the cab, he marvelled at finding grease in his nostrils.

That's the way McKinnon likes it. Malicious and delicious.

"I told a vegetarian that came in other day, we're basically an abattoir. We take animals and put them on a bun and serve them with a little bit of sauce. I'm not too politically correct. If you're some tofu-eating vegetarian who puts wheat germ in everything you eat, you shouldn't come in here anyway. That's not our type of restaurant."

McKinnon doesn't really think his food is that unhealthy. He admits that a Coronary Burger every day would send you to an early grave, but says it's okay to splurge once in a while.

"People want that kind of food. It's a good homemade burger. Anything in moderation. Just don't be a glutton."

But what about Sean Milligan, who eats five burgers a week at Dangerous Dan's? He's probably a wheezing sofa sloth, right? Nope. He's a lean, mean rock climbing instructor at the Toronto Climbing Academy.

"I was a vegetarian for a long time. But the type of lifestyle I lead requires that I get the protein. I've tried a lot of diets, but this works best for me. I'm getting enough activity that I'm not concerned about eating meat."

Would he be concerned about eating greasy sweets?

At Brooklyn's ChipShop, famous for its fish and chips, its owner is tinkering with the Twinkie. The sugary snack just wasn't oily enough for Sell, so he took it to the next level — the deep fryer. He dusts his golden-hot Twinkies with icing sugar, and sells them for $3 a pop.

Of course, you don't need to visit a restaurant to abuse your arteries. You can visit me and enjoy my masochistic breakfast invention. Take a big pan, fill it with bacon, and let it sizzle without draining the fat. When there's a bubbling pool of grease in the pan, pour a couple cans of baked beans with pork sauce in there and let it deep fry. Pour it all on to cold, sliced tomatoes next to buttery eggs. Serve with piercingly cold beer (see the full recipe, above right).

It's so evil, I had to name it Satan's Breakfast.

And they'd probably enjoy it in Glasgow, Houston and St. Catharines. Because when that platter of golden-fried goodness is served up hot and thick, most of us would rather eat first and ask a cardiologist questions later —between pizza-breaks, that is.

This article can be referenced on the Toronto Star website,