You do not forget your first encounter with a Burger King Stacker Quad. Mine happened in a particularly dispiriting branch of the fast-food chain, on Eighth Avenue in New York -- a windowless underground outlet, accessible via a flight of stairs, or alternatively by a stairlift capable of supporting someone weighing up to 200kg.
The Stacker Quad, as you discover when you summon the nerve to order it, consists of four beef patties, four slices of cheese, and four strips of bacon in a bun, all glistening in far more grease than a regular Whopper or Big Mac. There is no trace of lettuce or tomato or onion, a fact specifically singled out for celebration in the TV ads that accompanied the launch of the Stacker product range in the US a few weeks ago.
"We're satisfying the serious meat lovers by leaving off the produce and letting them decide exactly how much meat and cheese they can handle," said Denny Marie Post, Burger King's chief concept officer, and a figure of some notoriety on the frontiers of fast-food science.
I certainly discovered my own limits. Eating a BK Stacker Quad is the gastronomic equivalent of being punched in the gut by a mugger, except that instead of having all my money stolen, I was relieved of only US$6.99, medium fries and soda included.
The Stacker may be extraordinary, but it is far from unique. Recent times have seen the launch -- mainly in the US for now, but give it time -- of a rash of products that the industry calls "indulgent offerings": foods marketed specifically on the basis of how much meat and cheese and how few annoying vegetables they contain.
Earlier in the day at Burger King, it could have been the Meat'Normous Omelet Sandwich; over at Denny's, the Extreme Grand Slam Breakfast; at Hardee's, another US chain, the Monster Thickburger (300g slices of Angus beef, eight bacon strips and three cheese slices in a buttered bun). Hardee's calls the Thickburger "a monument to decadence," although they might equally have pointed out that it is a handy way for the average adult male to consume 70 percent of his recommended daily calorific intake in a single meal.
It is worth recalling how strange these developments would have seemed just two years ago, when the fast-food backlash was at its height. Burger chains across the world, responding to alarming market research, began offering salads and fruit and fresh juices. McDonald's launched the GoActive meal, which consisted of a salad, bottled water and a pedometer; it also began phasing out its supersized meals, though it insisted the policy had nothing to do with the surprise success of Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me, the stomach-churning film that came to symbolize the uprising.
The US burger restaurant Wendy's added a fresh-fruit bowl to its menu; at the end of last year, the company quietly killed it, blaming a lack of demand.
"We listened to consumers who said they wanted to eat fresh fruit," a disarmingly honest spokesman told the New York Times, "but apparently they lied."
The industry's mistake, it seems, had been to listen to the market researchers instead of the food psychologists. People tell researchers what they think they want to hear, or what the respondents want to believe about themselves. But the little-trumpeted field of food psychology may be one of the closest things that the corporate world has to a window on its customers' souls.