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The Double Down reviewed: salty, salty, salty

No doubt you've heard about the Double Down, KFC's bacon and cheese "sandwich" whose "bun" is formed by two pieces of fried chicken and which, starting this week, is finally available in Canada. Correction: What you have probably heard was the chord of lament and worry the Double Down has struck with everyone from registered dietitians to concerned moms.

Amid growing concerns over excessive fat and salt in the Canadian diet, KFC has launched the nutritional equivalent of a bunker-buster bomb, a package of chicken, bacon and melted cheese that delivers a mega-payload of sodium and grease. How much sodium? A total of 1,740 milligrams, which is more salt than a fully grown adult ought to eat in an entire day.

And that's just the sodium. The Double Down also packs 540 calories, which, is the energy equivalent of two shot glasses of gasoline. A single Double Down, if burned efficiently, could heat a small bucket of ice-cold water to the point of boiling. If the "sandwich" were renewable, it would put Exxon out of business.

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But before everyone piles on to the anti-Double Down bandwagon, doesn't this sandwich deserve a little respect? Fast food, don't forget, hasn't been able to find its mojo during the past, oh, 15 years. While Ferran Adria and company were busy giving us foamed mashed potatoes, sous-vide braised quail breast dusted with freeze-dried foie gras powder and gazpacho popsicles, fast-food restaurants have suffered a series of marketing stillbirths: Angus burgers; high-calorie salads; cheese-in-the-crust pizza. It was almost painful (but also enjoyable) to watch.

And then comes the outlandish, absurd, contrarian, over-the-top Double Down. Finally, a "sandwich" no one can stop talking about. If the Double Down were a literary theory, its inventor would get tenure.

In other words, it's innovative. Already, others are attempting to best the Double Down. Denny's has introduced the fried cheese melt (fried cheese sticks in a grilled cheese sandwich). IHOP has responded with Pancake Stackers (the dish comes with cheesecake, you will be heartened to know). And Friendly's has launched a grilled-cheese-burger melt (a burger between two grilled cheese sandwiches).

According to news reports, Burger King is dabbling with fusion by experimenting with the "New York Pizza Burger," a 24-cm-wide burger made with four patties and topped with pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, marinara sauce and Tuscan pesto sauce. (Never mind the fact that pesto is from Genoa, not Tuscany.)

The point is this: Fast food has always been unhealthy. At least now it's, ahem, interesting.

Furthermore, are we being unfair to the Double Down by accusing it of having too much salt? It's hardly alone in this all-too-broad category. Many far more innocuous-seeming foods also have too much salt.

For example, a serving of Swanson Stuffing Baked Turkey has 970 mg of salt, or 40 per cent of your suggested daily intake. A mere five pieces of Pinty's Buffalo Flings contains 50 per cent. Twenty-one triangles of Doritos Spice 2.0: 19 per cent. A half can of Campbell's Chunky Clam Chowder: 26 per cent. Five jumbo olives: more than 50 per cent. And a single Vlasic zesty dill pickle: 26 per cent.

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At least the Double Down, by being named after a blackjack move, is upfront about the level of hazard. If the occasional indulgences such as foie gras and confit of duck - both high in fat and salt - are permissible, why isn't a Double Down?

Lastly, we are witnessing history. The Double Down heralds a new era in our post-agro-industrial-food society. Consider this: For roughly 10,000 years, grains - bread, rice or corn - have been the staples of the human diet.

Starting about 100 years ago, we Westerners began enjoying historically unheard of quantities of meat. But grain - baguettes, spaghetti, risotto, polenta, grits, etc. - was still the staple. Even today, there remain huge swaths of the planet where a piece of fried, breaded chicken is the stuff of fantasy.

Yet here in North America, thanks to KFC, fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, cutting-edge strains of genetically modified corn and soy and the spectacular food-converting ability of the modern-day industrial broiler chicken, the grain portion of the sandwich - namely the bun - has become optional. It has been replaced with what was, mere months ago, an extravagant sandwich filling: fried meat.

Is it perverse? Certainly. Is it unjust? Without a doubt. But at $6.90, it's also rather incredible.

There is, alas, a problem with the Double Down, and it's a problem no one seems to be talking about: the taste. It is salty. It's salty the way crunching road salt between your teeth is salty. Imagine two dry but very salty pieces of otherwise flavourless chicken with salty processed cheese and salty (but oddly non-smoky) bacon in between, and you have a pretty good idea.

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This morning, I bought my first - and likely my last - Double Down. By the third bite, my mouth began to feel like a saline desert. The grease, which was so abundant it made my lips appear glossy, nevertheless could not quench my craving for liquid. I threw it in the garbage with about $4 worth of "sandwich" remaining.

All of which is good news. Because there's still room for two palate-cleansing pickles before hitting my daily sodium limit. For that, I am grateful.

Mark Schatzker is the author of Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Join the conversation today at 1pm. The double down: gluttonous or genius? Is it symbolic of our culture of excess - or is it much ado over a little harmless sandwich? Katrina Onstad, Mark Schatzker and Wency Leung lead a live chat on the sandwich that has everyone talking.

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