In Search of Special Sauce: A Visit to the Big Mac Museum

statue of Jim Delligatti, inventor of the Big Mac, at the Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Statue of McDonald’s franchise owner Jim Delligatti with his most famous creation, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon

As inventions go, it pales in importance to, say, the polio vaccine or alternating electric current. Nor is it as fun as the Ferris Wheel, movie theater, baseball stadium, or broadcast radio–all of which Pittsburgh likes to take credit for…if not inventing, at least getting there first.

When it comes to food, we’ll argue the innovation of French fries injected into salads and sandwiches is an altogether superior achievement and Pittsburgh’s many weirdo regional pizza varieties are unique and different enough to warrant their own series on these electronic pages.

Despite all these other advancements to society, it is McDonald’s flagship double-decker hamburger alone that gets a dedicated visitor center. That’s what brought us to The Big Mac Museum.

display model of Big Mac toaster in Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

“Big Mac Toaster used from 1970-1997”

Truth is, the Big Mac wasn’t actually created here. At least not right here in the city–where it appears on numerous famous things from Pittsburgh lists–nor here in the exurb of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, where its eponymous museum was constructed along Route 30.

No, the Big Mac’s two paddies, three buns, pickles, cheese, and yes, “special sauce” were first concocted in a North Hills McDonald’s and served to the public some 50 miles south in the small Fayette County city of Uniontown.

display of Big Mac sauce and gun, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Big Mac sauce and gun

It was there, in 1967, that early franchise owner Jim Delligatti went rogue. In an act of corporate insurrection that would likely get an operator slapped with a brand-violation lawsuit in today’s world, Delligatti took the same basic ingredients–plus a special double-cut bun–and made a bigger hamburger. With that one action, the restauranteur simultaneously created a local sensation, invented super-sizing, and put him on anyone’s short list for induction to the McHall of McFame.

One of many different historical displays, this one featuring video interviews with Jim Delligatti

By the next year, the informative display at the museum tells us, the Big Mac had been introduced nationally with a TV commercial called “Big Attraction.” In that minute-long spot a host guides the viewer through the elaborate layering of the sandwich.

The escalating excitement in the narrator’s voice is truly infectious: we start as passive participants in an emotionless guided tour but are soon sucked-in by the surprise elements of a “club slice,” “another hamburger!” and “a little more sauce, just for good measure.” It’s also worth noting the flavor-enhancer here is referred to as “our own secret sauce.” That sauce would become “special” by some point in the early 1970s.

The Big Mac Museum was opened in 2007 to honor Delligatti’s 50th anniversary as a McDonald’s franchisee and visitors should know that it’s housed in the dining room of a working McDonald’s restaurant–so there may be some challenges getting around to all of the display items at peak dining hours.

In fact, in order to bring our readers the full experience, Orbit photographers had to wait out some chit-chatting customers who were finishing breakfast. The couple was installed at the obvious power-broker table, right in the middle of the restaurant with its custom rounded upholstered seats, sitting under the bronze statue of Delligatti–one hand making the OK gesture, the other holding a Big Mac (photo at top).

Some of the Big Mac packaging through the years, plus one novelty transistor radio

While it’s not The Carnegie or Heinz History Center, The Big Mac Museum offers a lot to see–and, you know, the price is right. There is a bank of historical photos with a timeline of pivotal events in the life of the sandwich, a video installation featuring an interview with Delligatti, photos and a Delligatti family tree, equipment used in the restaurant, an array of packaging through the years, and plenty of novelty items.

Rock the McVote ’86! Various items from the Big Mac Museum.

The Rt. 30 McDonald’s is one of those jumbo versions with an indoor play area for the tykes. This is also where you’ll find the world’s largest Big Mac. The 14-foot sculpture of the signature burger on a decorative stand reads as both over-the-top pop art and weirdly hyper-realistic. It’s also so big that it would look great as a legit out-in-the-elements roadside attraction. For now, though, visitors will need to park the car and come inside to see it.

enormous sculpture of Big Mac, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

This is one BIG Mac. “World’s largest Big Mac” sculpture.

On the one hand, The Big Mac Museum is just classic goofy roadside America–not that far off from World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the like. [In fact, Roadside America (the web site) already beat us to the museum.] Despite me not really giving a hoot about McDonald’s, I found the story of Jim Delligatti, his family’s fast-food empire, and a time when one franchisee could influence change at the corporate level to be really interesting.

On the other, though, there is a lot that could be said about American values when we immortalize a factory-farmed, mass-produced, unhealthy-in-every-way double hamburger–literally putting its tribute on a pedestal–displayed in a soulless highway strip. This, while a lot of Pittsburgh will never forgive Mayor Peduto for adding bicycle lanes. Sigh.

Big Mac Christmas ornament, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

‘Tis the season. Big Mac Christmas ornament.

The inevitable question: is it worth the trip? If you’re already out east, along Rt. 30, and you’ve got an extra 20 minutes, by all means. Also, if you just love either local (recent) history, McDonald’s, or roadside kitsch, yes–you’ll not be disappointed.

For everyone else, maybe we could put the ol’ hive noggin together and dream up an alternative, grass roots and for-the-people yin to the Big Mac Museum’s yang–say, The French Fry Museum, Pierogi Palace, or–be still, my heart–The Western Pennsylvania Pizza Hall of Fame. We’ve got a few nominees for the inaugural class.

highway sign for McDonald's/Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

The McDonald’s/Big Mac Museum sign on Rt. 30, North Huntingdon

Getting there: The Big Mac Museum is on Rt. 30 in North Huntingdon, very close to the PA-Turnpike exit. Look for the big McDonald’s sign and you can’t miss it. Admission is free and the museum is open whenever the restaurant is.


Sources:

The Donora Smog Museum

miniature models of blacksmith shop tools in the Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith tools by Joseph Hostenske, Donora Smog Museum

The big display case has a plate glass front, top, and interior shelf like you might see showcasing diamond necklaces or gold earrings in a jewelry shop. In fact, it may well have done just that in a previous life. Inside, though, is a different type of treasure.

Tiny replicas of an entire blacksmith shop–work benches, heavy tongs, hammers, wrenches, pick axes, and pliers; wheelbarrow, anvil, shovel, and coal bin–have been rendered in perfect miniature by hands that could only have known the real thing. An ink-calligraphed placard on a repurposed photo stand informs us the collection of pieces was created by Joseph Hostenske, “the first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora, Pa.”

model of blacksmith tools, Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith set made by Joseph Hostenske, the “first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora”

The Hostenske collection exists somewhere within the realms of folk art, personal history, and–for anyone who’s ever wanted to see Barbie and Ken really get down to hard labor–the world’s most grueling set of doll house accessories. How fascinating would it be if we all reduced the most memorable of life’s possessions to 1:12 scale?

The little blacksmith set is also among the most interesting array of items in a room full of very stiff competition. That space is The Donora Smog Museum.

mannequin with majorette uniform, Donora Smog Museum

majorette mannequin in Donora Dragons black-and-orange

Any way you slice it, little Donora has had a tough run. Like its fellow Mon Valley (ex-)steel towns–Clairton and Duquesne, Monessen and McKeesport–Donora experienced the familiar boom and bust of big industry setting up shop right at the turn of the 20th century, building a massive economic engine that provided thousands of good-paying local jobs, a thriving community and business district, and then ultimate collapse under the weight of newer, more-efficient technology and changing global economics.

And then there’s the killer smog. Like Johnstown and Love Canal, Centralia and Hopewell, Donora is primarily known to outsiders as the site of a deadly environmental disaster. In October, 1948, a rare weather event called a temperature inversion caused an exceptionally low cloud ceiling over the Mon Valley that remained unmoved for five days. The deadly smoke produced by the Donora Zinc Works had nowhere to go and ended up poisoning thousands of locals, ultimately causing the deaths of twenty-six.

painting of historic sign reading "Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA", Donora Smog Museum

“Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA”

At one point, Donora had a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored welcome sign declaring it Next to yours, the best town in the USA. That deferential boast may be hard for an outsider to understand–even put in context that it was erected at the town’s economic peak, while the mill was still running and the streets and storefronts were full of people.

The original sign hasn’t survived–or, at least, no one knows where it is–but it’s made its way into Society for Better Living, a wall-sized painting of Donora history by Cal. U. associate professor Todd Pinkham. The big work hangs on the museum’s north wall and forms a kind of overture to all the museum will have to offer as well as hazy nostalgia for many small town things any Donoran would have internalized. There’s a parade float sponsored by the Zinc Works, steelworkers in wool caps, famous local residents, and, of course, the mighty blast furnaces of U.S. Steel’s Donora Works.

painting of images from Donora history overlapping, Donora Smog Museum

detail from “Society for Better Living,” Todd Pinkham’s Donora history painting

All those elements come alive in the Donora Historical Society’s museum. The Orbit was lucky enough to get a personal walk-through with museum curator/archivist/educator Brian Charlton and volunteer Mark Pawelec. To call what these guys do a “labor of love” would be underselling both labor and love.

Pawalec is a lifelong Donora resident who commutes way past Pittsburgh just because he can’t imagine leaving his home in the valley. Charlton clearly battles outsider status having grown up five miles away in Monongahela. There aren’t a lot of quantitative rewards to spending your Saturdays preserving the history of a town that frankly many of us down river couldn’t place on the map. But luckily there are more ways to measure success than with a calculator. The quick repartee this pair exchanges when they share names and dates, facts and figures is great to witness and the service they’re doing for the whole Mon Valley is immeasurable.

very old black-and-white panoramic photographs of Donora, PA

historic panoramic photos of Donora

On what is obviously the most threadbare of shoestrings, Charlton and his crew of volunteers have dug deep to illustrate the full scope of 20th century life in Donora. There are its claims to fame, for sure–U.S. Steel’s vertically-integrated operation, responsible for everything from the steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge to your (grand)mother’s kitchen tongs; famous local athletes Stan “The Man” Musial and the Ken Griffeys (Junior and Senior); and, of course, that deadly smog.

But the museum–and the town of Donora–goes much deeper than these handful of historical bullet points. Donora was an immigrant landing spot that brought newcomers from all over the world. Those new residents founded dozens of local churches and a comparable number of ethnic social clubs–some of both survive today. While America was (and is) still very much racially divided, the museum includes photos of integrated company picnics, school sports teams, and local musical groups that existed before the civil rights movement took hold nationwide.

student display with smokestacks and dates around air quality legislation, Donora Smog Museum

air quality history display (detail)

For such a tiny entity–in a town of less than 5000 residents–The Donora Historical Society has made some impressive connections. The museum has joined The Heinz History Center’s History Center Affiliate Program and partners with California University of Pennsylvania for a series of student-led research projects and videos in their “Digital Storytelling” program, led by Christina Fisanick, associate professor of English.

The text- and photo-based displays that fill the center of the Smog Museum have originated from a combination of these sources. The Donora Historical Society’s web site hosts a terrific set of short documentaries from the same collection of sources.

display with news stories and photographs of the Donora smog of October, 1948

history of the Donora smog displays

The services offered by the DHS extend beyond the Smog Museum’s walls. The group offers regular tours of both Eldora Park and Cement City–an early housing development based on Thomas Edison’s design for efficient, fireproof, poured-in-place concrete construction. Donora claims one of the largest collection of Edison concrete homes in the country.

The museum features a collection of documents including the original blueprints for Cement City in their extensive archive of local history. The big, back room is filled with bookcases and file cabinets full of detailed town maps, photos, and glass negatives.

We’re booked for the April 22 Cement City tour so maybe you’ll see a follow-up story then.

blueprints for cement house, Donora Smog Museum

Cement City blueprints

The Smithsonian, this ain’t. The Donora Smog Museum doesn’t have the corporate endowments, government sponsorship, or turnstile receipts to have virtual reality experiences or interactive phone apps. Heck–other cultural institutions have gift shops larger than the entire Smog Museum.

But in this one turn-of-the-century former bank building–still retaining design elements from a past life as a Chinese restaurant–there is so much heart, love, and dedication to the history of its town that it does everything we can hope from such a place. The experience is eye-opening, educational, a little bit melancholy, a little bit wacky, and very thoroughly Orbit-approved.

safe from Donora Slovak club or beneficial society and other historical items, Donora Smog Museum

items from the museum including a safe from the former Donora Slovak club or beneficial society

Getting there: The Donora Smog Museum is located on McKean Avenue at the corner of Sixth Street. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour drive from the city of Pittsburgh. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM. For more information, see: http://www.donorahistoricalsociety.org

Bonus tip: The pizza at Anthony’s (just down the block at 557 McKean) is among the very best this blogger has ever had. The dough (the dough!) was like the best ciabatta bread–a little toughness to the outside and an unbelievably delicious, chewy, airy middle. Do yourself a favor and get a couple cuts after you visit the museum.

exterior of the Donora Smog Museum

The Donora Smog Museum, 595 McKean Ave., Donora, PA