World's Largest Hamburgers
There are countless diners, beaneries, and fast-food franchises in this country where a meal will add an inch or two to your waistline. But the idea of a restaurant whose everyday menu is designed to overwhelm you -- where a meal can be just TOO MUCH -- seems impossible in our double-stuffed land of casual fit superabundance. To operate continuously at a gastro-bypass level takes, for lack of a better word, guts.
Denny's Beer Barrel Pub, "Home of the World's Largest Burgers," is that kind of place.
No giant burger billboards announce its presence, which is far from everything in rural Pennsylvania. Even on the inside, it seems like a typical, dimly lit suds and burger joint with lots of neon beer signs and TV screens filled with sports. But hung on one wall are glass-fronted bulletin boards, packed with Polaroids of mostly young men, each with a giant hamburger before them. On the border of each photo is written the word "FINISHED" or "NO." Most of them have the word "NO."
"I think it's the enormity; it breaks your spirit," says Denny Liegey of his often-unconquered meat creations. For years Denny served one-half and one-pound hamburgers at the Pub, and then, around 1990 as he recalls, he began creating bigger burgers and selling them as a dare: "If you can eat it, we'll pay for it." The meat increased in weight to two pounds, then three. Then in 1998 Denny introduced "Ye Olde 96er," which is nine pounds altogether, six of it beef. Guinness calls it the "largest hamburger commercially available," and their certificate hangs prominently in the dining room. Competitive eaters have another name for it: "the Holy Grail of the burger world."
"As far as consumption goes, that's pretty close to what a human being can do without harming themselves," Denny says of Ye Olde 96er. Only one person has ever eaten it within the Pub's three-hour time limit, and that was "a little, skinny college girl from Princeton," according to Denny, who just showed up one night, evidently with an appetite. "It stunned the competitive eating world," Denny recalled. "They said, 'You ate the Holy Grail!' And I later heard that her mom was mad at her."
Denny gives us a tour of the kitchen to show how his burger behemoths are made. Special pans had to be developed to preserve the meat's circular shape, and Denny has a contract with a local bakery for his custom-sized buns. The burgers are baked, mostly, at low heat, so that consuming one is like eating a meat loaf. Denny's biggest burger ever -- a 123-pounder that blew away the old world record of 78.5 pounds -- took nine hours to cook. "You can't put a burger on a grill for that many hours; it would be charred," says waitress Stephanie, who obviously has first-hand knowledge of the process.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Denny now promotes the "Belly Buster," a two-person, 15-pound burger made of 11 pounds of meat plus the fixins. We ordered one for ourselves (the big burgers need several hours advance notice), but when Stephanie brought out the foot-high creation, embellished with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, and oozing mayo and cheese, we knew that we were way out of our league. "No one has ever been able to eat it," Denny said*. He remembered that a Japanese sumo wrestler had arrived one night -- Denny's is a world bulk-eating pilgrimage site -- and ate half a Belly Buster in only an hour. "Then he just stopped," Denny recalled. "He looked at it for a while, but he never took another bite."
We drove around with ours, uneaten in the back seat, for a day. The Big Mac Museum wouldn't let us carry it inside, so we took it to an after-dark rendezvous with a similarly shaped flying saucer in a town named Mars. The next day, the giant bun made good eats for the crazed carp at the Linesville Spillway.
Despite his success at pushing the digestive envelope of others, Denny is himself a confessed failure at eating his own creations -- even the comparatively puny two-pound "Pub Challenger" is too much for him. He's happy to stay on the serving side of the dinner table, where he and his crack crew challenge all whose egos are often bigger than their stomachs. "We're real good friends with the local EMTs," Denny says, jokingly, although more than a few Beer Barrel Pub customers probably wouldn't mind going out after one last mouthful, and getting a "FINISHED" next to their snapshot.
*[On October 13, 2008, 21-year-old Brad Sciullo of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, did the impossible. He ate an entire Beer Barrel Belly Buster -- 15 pounds of meat, plus 5 pounds of toppings and bun -- in 4 hours and 39 minutes.]