Eating to the extreme
By Dominick Reuter
I should probably lead by saying this was NOT my idea.
I was checking in with the Reuters picture desk in Toronto about some of my images when an editor asked if I would be interested in a meal “courtesy of the Baron” (our affectionate term for Reuters).
The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had just announced the winners of their 2014 “Xtreme Eating” awards, in which they single out chain restaurant menu items with unbelievably high levels of calories, saturated fats, sugars and salts. The businesses named included the Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin.
Our plan was to photograph these specific dishes, try them, pay and go. More succinctly, I’d shoot, eat, and leave.
First up was the Cheesecake Factory. There was one nearby in Boston and it was lunchtime, so I invited a colleague who might offer a second opinion during my first foray as an impromptu food critic. The friendly staff accommodated my request to sit close to a window for better light.
We located the items mentioned in the CSPI report and found the French Toast options were only available on Sundays, leaving us with the Farfalle with Chicken and Roasted Garlic (2,410 calories) and the Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Cheesecake (1,500 calories). Suddenly this adventure looked manageable.
Our order was rather ordinary in appearance. It was what was on the stat sheet that was different. I photographed the untouched meal before testing out the flavor of these statistics.
The first bite of the pasta was as rich as anything I’ve ever tasted. The combination of cream, butter, bacon, more butter, salt, more bacon, and carbs was powerful. If I were less hungry, I might have found it overwhelming, but the only thing interfering with my genuine satisfaction with the dish was the nagging awareness that I was consuming over a full day’s worth of calories before even touching dessert.
We then focused on the cheesecake. In a place known for cheesecake, it had been hard to imagine how this one would set itself apart, but we were floored by the sweetness. The chocolate, peanut butter, and caramel flavors each competed at their sugary maximum. For comparison, a dollop of the cake’s whipped cream tasted as neutral as foamed milk.
Throwing in our napkins, my colleague headed back to work and I plugged Red Robin into my GPS.
The drive to Foxboro was marked by a heightened awareness of my cardiovascular system. I couldn’t determine if it was real or just in my head. Was that a tingle in my artery?
Fortunately, I arrived during a mid-afternoon lull so I could work in peace and not bother any other guests. Again, I asked for a table in good light and ordered a catastrophic 3,540 calories from my friendly and attentive server. First to arrive was the enormous milkshake topped with pink crystals of Hawaiian Sea Salt. Then, the burger, consisting of two freshly-grilled patties with fried onions, bacon, cheese and sauce stacked and glistening between the halves of a dill-herbed roll. The fries came in a shining steel container that, when I tried to pick it up, truly had no bottom. Truth in advertising.
Finally done photographing my “Monster” meal from various angles, curiosity got the better of me and I bit into the burger. The most unique thing about it was the dill roll, a nice change of pace from your average American bun but I could hardly taste the peppercorn sauce. I washed it down with a slurp of my half-melted milkshake and was overwhelmed by the taste of milk, sugar, caramel and salt. I immediately needed to gulp down some water. Palate cleansed, I tried it again and was met with the same hyper-sweet cream flavor. I’d had enough.
Job done, I returned to Boston to file my pictures. I was terrifically thirsty from all the work my body was doing to process what I had just consumed and I guzzled down a liter of water.
Afterwards, I visited a local rock climbing area and scrambled around until sunset with an un-diminishing level of energy. Even after dark I was still pretty wired and stayed awake several hours later than usual, reading a novel and waiting for a crash.
The next morning I still had a fuel surplus from the day before and hopped on the scale to assess the damage. Somehow, the numbers were on the lower end of my average, but I was eager to get back to physical activity. I went a local climbing gym and combined work, climbing and yoga for eight hours, augmenting my fuel with only a bagel and an energy bar.
As someone who is pretty active, eats mostly vegetarian and doesn’t work at a desk every day, I can’t recommend these meals to anyone who won’t immediately burn the calories and sweat out the salt. Furthermore, anyone trying these dishes should consume a lot more water than normal to help process some of what’s going in.
More importantly, I think the ordinariness of these meals should serve as a caution. The extremes in calories, sugars and salts weren’t announced on the menu, and are frequently combined by talented chefs in ways that encourage our palates to respond favorably to the dish.
But I don’t have a judgment call on these calorific feats. These meals are about chefs responding to the desires of their customers. They’re certainly not ‘healthy’. But then neither is eight hours seated at a desk.