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Cleveland has its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to celebrate the likes of Mick Jagger and the Beatles. Washington has its Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to highlight such milestones as man on the moon.
North Huntingdon, near Pittsburgh, is honoring another type of human achievement by turning the words “twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheese picklesonionsonasesameseedbun” into a tourist destination.
Only time will tell how many visitors will flock to the Westmoreland County town to the McDonald’s Big Mac Museum Restaurant, where they can be photographed in front of the world’s largest Big Mac (14 feet by 12 feet).
Or how many tour busloads will crowd around the handcrafted walnut cases displaying the first Big Mac bun toaster and the contraption that now squirts out special sauce (a third of an ounce on both the top and bottom buns).
Or if amateur fast-food historians will recognize the various boxes that have wrapped up the Big Mac, the sinfully sloppy sandwich invented 40 years ago in Uniontown, Pa., by Jim “MJ” Delligatti.
But the museum, which opened this week, touts the classic double-decker burger as American as apple pie and baseball. The free museum and restaurant combo also serves as a tribute to Delligatti, a Fox Chapel resident who, at 89, is going strong, still coming to work every day after decades of Big Mac consumption (almost as though he were trying to disprove critics who say fast food is killing us).
Considering its narrow niche — one fattening sandwich — the museum/restaurant has a lot of Big Mac memorabilia oozing out of its display cases.
In fact, Mike Delligatti, the McDonald’s owner/operator who dreamed up the idea for the museum as a tribute to his father, consulted the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center for ideas. So the museum has a high-tech worldwide Big Mac map, a chart of the foreign currency values found in the “Big Mac Index” and subtle wallpaper with gray lettering that says “Twoallbeefpatties …”
You walk into the Big Mac Museum and see a large photograph of Delligatti.
“We call him Big Mac Daddy,” said Mike, whose family owns 18 McDonald’s restaurants in Western Pennsylvania.
There is also a bronze bust of Delligatti, who celebrates his 50th year as a McDonald’s franchisee, and his beloved Big Mac. And the giant Big Mac statue sits in a state-of-the-art play area with jungle noises and animals painted on the walls.
Delligatti was 49 when he concocted the Big Mac, spending a few weeks developing the special sauce. He said McDonald’s headquarters was “very cautious” initially before giving him the go-ahead. Corporate officials told him he could only use ingredients in the store — a single-sliced bun, instead of the double-sliced one he wanted.
“I tried to make the sandwich without the middle slice. But it was too messy,” with the special sauce soaking through.
So Delligatti went out and bought a double-sliced bun for his double-decker hamburger and sold it for 45 cents in 1967 in his McDonald’s in Uniontown — the city whose photo image fills one wall of the museum.
It sold so well in Western Pennsylvania that McDonald’s unveiled the Big Mac nationally in 1968 in silver-and-blue wrapping, and dubbed it the Big Attraction. Delligatti had no idea it would sell 550 million a year in the United States today or be sold in 100 countries.
Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t get a percentage of Big Mac sales or a big raise from his invention. “Everybody thinks I did. But no way. All I got was a plaque.”
The museum, which was paid for by both Jim Delligatti and McDonald’s, is a love letter to the Big Mac.
But the pop-culture icon has been maligned on Morgan Spurlock’s Academy Award-nominated documentary “Super Size Me” and by other critics. At 540 calories and 29 grams of fat (the museum doesn’t spout such unflattering factoids), the Big Mac is sometimes held up as a symbol of why Americans are fat and getting fatter.
However, the father of the Big Mac says everything in moderation.
“You have to have some responsibility for what you do,” Delligatti said. “I eat at McDonald’s all the time and it makes me healthy.”
Delligatti has never tired of his invention. He still eats on average one Big Mac a week, and he likes gazing at the hulking statue of his sandwich in the Big Mac Museum. “To me, it looks beautiful.”
(Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis(at)post-gazette.com.)