Graeme Wood

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Big Hunk o’ Love

Originally published in The Daily.

In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service asked the nation to vote by postcard on whether the new Elvis Presley stamp should depict Elvis as a young man — slickly pompadoured, tie loose, cool as a diner malt — or as the jonesing, sequined lard-ass he later became. The decision wasn’t a hard one: Voters overwhelmingly chose the young Elvis, preferring to remember their idol in the days when he put Crisco in his hair rather than into his face. Memories of Presley’s shape late in life remain painful for some fans, who prefer the image of a lithe young star with a pelvis so provocative that, even fully clothed, it could not be shown on television. But Elvis morphed into something much worse, burying himself in his own pudge, until on Aug. 16, 1977, his heart decided it could no longer work under those conditions and left the King dead on his bathroom floor.

By age 42, Elvis had long been gobbling drugs and fatty foods. But his romance with saturated fat reached a sort of point-of-no-return 18 months before the end, on a chilly night that started at Graceland, his estate in Memphis, Tenn. On Groundhog Day in 1976, Elvis’s guests at Graceland included two Denver cops, Jerry Kennedy and Ron Pietrafeso, who had served as bodyguards for him during a ski trip in Vail, Colo., two weeks earlier. As gratuities, Elvis gave Kennedy a Lincoln Mark IV and Pietrafeso a Cadillac. (Elvis’s relations with law enforcement were unremittingly strange. He wore and owned a Denver police uniform. And once he showed up unannounced at the White House and asked to be made a federal agent. Richard Nixon posed for a photo and — without apparent irony — badged him into the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.)

That night, the men lounged in the Jungle Room, which Elvis had custom-designed to resemble a Tarzan-style rainforest, complete with a permanently running waterfall and a Kon Tiki throne from which the Big Kahuna himself held court. Elvis was seized by a reverie — a fond recollection of his favorite sandwich of all time, the Fool’s Gold Loaf, served by the Colorado Mine Company in Denver. He had tried it just once, and like a lost love, it now beckoned across the years, each one of its 8,000 calories a memory of unspeakable delight. He described it for his guests.

The recipe, devised by restaurant owners Cindy and Buck Scott, was simple. Take a whole loaf of Italian bread and slice it lengthwise. Hollow it out and slather it with margarine. Then add a whole jar of jelly and a whole jar of creamy peanut butter, creating two large boats of PB & J. Finally, add a whole pound of fried bacon. Before adding the bacon, dab away the grease on paper towels (presumably to avoid adding unnecessary fat and rendering the sandwich disgusting). Then reunite the sandwich halves, deep-fry, and serve. For this, the Scotts charged $49.95, the equivalent of $189 in today’s dollars.

Elvis’ guests murmured approval at the description of the sandwich, and Elvis — unwilling to see them disappointed — insisted that they go at once to Denver. At midnight, Elvis’ people called the restaurant to order their sandwiches, and they alerted his pilots, Milo High (his real name) and Elwood David, that the boss was on a mission. The plane, named the Lisa Marie for his daughter, who had turned 8 that day, was still a novelty, as Elvis had acquired and re-equipped it just a year before. The Convair 880 normally seated 96, but Elvis had torn out the standard seats and installed leather recliners, as well as a bedroom and dining facilities. On the two-hour trip, they drank Pepsi but abstained from all food.

Awaiting Elvis and his two friends in a private hangar at Denver’s Stapleton Airport was a scene worthy of the “Satyricon”: 22 piping-hot Fool’s Gold Loaves on silver trays, with a chest of cracked ice and Dom Pérignon on the side. Elvis, the two cops and the two pilots started eating at 1:40 a.m. and took two hours to finish. The cops drank Champagne; Elvis and the pilots drank Perrier. And then they got back in the plane and returned to Graceland.

The whole enterprise cost about $16,000 and burned around 10,000 gallons of fuel. The total number of calories consumed was so great that the men would literally have had to walk halfway back to Memphis to burn them off. However, Elvis was not totally unpragmatic. He allegedly had the Scotts write down the recipe for his personal chef, Pauline “Brown Mama” Nicholson, so she could prepare it on-site in case the craving struck Elvis again. (She is known to have prepared him countless fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, but the Fool’s Gold Loaf never made a recorded encore.)

There’s much to deplore about this sordid caper: the carbon emissions, the profligacy, the tastelessness, the thought that each gooey loaf must have been lacquering the walls of Elvis’ arteries and bringing him that much closer to his final performance. The Fool’s Gold Loaf never caught on widely — it survives in Elvis folklore, and in novelty cookbooks — and the Colorado Mine Company was shuttered in the 1980s.

On the other hand, the quest for the Fool’s Gold Loaf is one of the purer expressions of the total lack of sense and inhibition that made Elvis, and rock ‘n’ roll more generally, so appealing in the first place. Few people have allowed their ids to dominate them as thoroughly as the man who flew a thousand miles to kill himself with a stack of grease-drenched sandwiches. The libertine streak that inspired such a whim is the same one that made those hips gyrate to such devastating effect two decades earlier.

And most of all, the expedition survives in memory as a testament to the King’s extreme streak of hospitality and friendship. Elvis, the puffy and obese addict, would spare no expense to satisfy his cop buddies’ late-night cravings. This is touching loyalty. The crowds may have preferred the early Elvis, but there is something to love about those late-Elvis jowls after all.

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