Yale University Press, 2008, 160 pp., $22
Hamburger: A Global History
University of Chicago Press, 2008, 128 pp., $15.95
It may well be that we are what we eat. If so, anyone of a certain age in a Western country knows that whatever we are today is not what we were some years ago. Food habits may not be completely globalized in America, the European Union and places like Australia and New Zealand, but the trend is certainly toward a more diverse cuisine. Whether caused by migration flows, shifts in food import patterns due to technology, or the enticement of weird-eats shows on cable television, most of us are far more adventurous gobblers than were our parents and grandparents. As little as a few decades ago, many American Midwesterners still thought of pizza as “foreign food”, and unless they were familiar from travel or family connection with the Southwest, a quesadilla, were one to sneak up on a person, say, around Indianapolis, would have seemed as inedible as it was unpronounceable. Now folks from Indiana and even Iowa eat Korean confections like kimchee, giving hardly a thought to their alien origins. So when a dish remains emblematic of a national cuisine in this globalized landscape—not just for locals but in the eyes of the rest of the world—it whets our curiosity as well as our appetite. In America, there is simply no question about what this iconic dish is: the hamburger.
The triumph of the American hamburger is unarguable. Not only does it still stand tall against sushi, satay, moussaka, falafel and smelly French cheeses, it has gone imperialist, invading foreign climes no less than has Coca-Cola and baseball caps worn backwards. It has introduced the world also to its associated icons: fries, ketchup, dill pickle slices and milkshakes—along with the diner booths, juke-boxes and interior stainless steel awnings where the burger made its name. Two new books, The Hamburger by Josh Ozersky and Hamburger: A Global History by Andrew F. Smith, attempt to do justice to the history and meaning of this pre-eminent edible American icon.
Far be it for Ozersky and Smith to pass up a good burger, but their books are less about what the hamburger is than what it says about American culture. As they both acknowledge, the success of the hamburger is about a lot more than the sum of its ingredients.
“Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home”, writes Ozersky, the editor of Grub Street, a New York City food magazine and blog,
it had a special semiotic power—a power not shared by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the po’boy or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says American like a hamburger.
This remains the case, both authors insist, even at a time when McDonalds—the purveyor of more mediocre hamburgers than any merchant in universal history—is determined to prove its healthy eating credentials in a corporate makeover that could fairly be called “Pass the Salad.”
Both books provide historical context. Each, for example, reviews the various origin stories for the hamburger. Hamburg steak, following the German tradition for chopped, minced or scraped beef patties, began appearing on American restaurant menus in the 19th century. According to Ozersky, however, consumption really took off in the 1880s after Chicago’s vast “meatropolis” was linked with East Coast cities via refrigerated railroad cars.
Ozersky is certainly a purist in some respects. He absolutely insists that a hamburger is not a hamburger unless the meat is nestled inside a bun; otherwise it’s just a slab of cooked chopped beef. But his interest here is not in parsing impossible-to-verify claims of invention, or engaging in philosophical discussions over what constitutes a bun. He only wants to establish the impact of the hamburger’s full-scale commercial breakthrough in the early 20th century. “The hamburger—compact, standardized and mass-produced—coming at the world as an irrepressible economic and cultural force—matters because of the infrastructure created for it and how it changed the world”, Ozersky comments. “The hamburger, wave rather than particle, is a public commercial entity.”
It didn’t start out that way. According to Smith, editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2004) and of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (2007), insofar as hamburgers were sold as part of a commercial venture, they were first sold in roadside stands near factories and tended to have a very loose association with quality, consistency and hygiene. A hamburger was the antithesis of the Progressive era’s pure food movement, not least because, as a ground-up product like sausage as opposed to a unmolested steak or chop, it was hard to know exactly what was in one.
In 1916 Walter Anderson, working at what became White Castle, developed the techniques of cooking the burger on a very hot griddle to keep the juices in, flattening the patty with the back of a spatula and replacing sliced bread with a specially designed white bun to soak up the juices. It was the success of the White Castle hamburger chain in the 1920s and 1930s that turned the hamburger wave into a tsunami.
White Castle was a fast-food operation long before the phrase “fast food” was invented. When White Castle burgers got the nickname “sliders”, the reference was not to how fast they came to you but how fast they left you. But White Castle was more than a pioneer of fast food: It was the edible epitome of the new industrial age. What Henry Ford’s Model T was to the human foot, Anderson’s White Castle was to the human gut.
It was Walter Anderson’s partner, Billy Ingram, who fully understood and developed the paradigm. He saw the need for extensive marketing to go with the new product, and with marketing came expansion. He also understood the advantages of promoting cleanliness, including the use of gleaming white walls, to reassure customers not only that this place was clean, but that all White Castles operated at exactly the same guaranteed standards of cleanliness and quality. “When you sit in a White Castle”, a 1932 brochure pointed out,
remember that you are one of several thousands; you are sitting on the same kind of stool; you are being served on the same kind of counter; the coffee you drink is made in accordance with a certain formula; the hamburger you eat is prepared over a gas flame of the same intensity; the cups you drink from are identical to thousands of cups that thousands of other people are using at the same moment. The same standard of cleanliness protects your food.
Clearly, White Castle was the first gastronomical distributed system, many years before anyone had heard of McDonald’s. By 1935 White Castle was selling forty million hamburgers a year, a triumph of the romantic appeal of the new machine age and the search for order amid industrializing chaos. It featured consumption, patriotism and standardization in an attractive combination most today find difficult to understand—the same way that the appealing novelty of buying food out of little glass-lined compartments at New York’s famous Automat is lost on most people today.
White Castle attracted plenty of competitors who could see the money to be made from the Anderson-Ingram formula. Some brilliant soul, however, eventually got the idea of combining the hamburger business model with America’s growing love affair with the automobile. Among those competitors were the brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, who opened up a hot dog stand in Pasadena and then a drive-in burger bar in San Bernadino in 1940, where customers could come inside to eat if they liked or drive away with their meals if they preferred.
Business was good. Indeed it was good enough to make the fast food market as it existed during and just after World War II seem too slow to Richard and Maurice. The new world about to be born needed something faster still. So they tore down a money-making business in 1948 and promptly rebuilt it with some revolutionary changes: no more carhops, just customers paying and getting instant service from a teenage boy army; re-usable tableware would be replaced with throwaway utensils made from revolutionary new plastics; and customers would eat only in their cars—no costs for interior space, no need to clean up customer messes, no accumulation of trash.
The McDonald brothers built to scale as well as for speed. The griddles got larger and the spatulas got stronger; the buns waited on stainless steel lazy susans and the burgers were kept warm by a heat bar. Richard McDonald came up with the idea of the golden arches, set off by plenty of space and white tiles and glass. See, all clean and new and modern, probably more so than your kitchen at home. Within a few years, the profits were enormous and the popularity of the San Bernadino business was growing exponentially.
One day the president of the company that made the milkshake mixing machines for the McDonald’s operation came by for a visit. He just couldn’t believe that one restaurant was using eight of his machines at the same time, and he just had to see how this could be. The milkshake man, Ray Kroc, immediately suggested that he become the brothers’ national franchising agent. This belligerent, entrepreneurial visionary was to become for decades the driving force behind the surging power of McDonalds and its incredible balancing act between total conformity and brilliant ingenuity. He was determined to avoid the possibility of McDonalds venues becoming teenage hangouts rather than familiar havens of reassurance for the families of rapidly expanding suburban America. Kroc banned jukeboxes, telephones and vending machines. He refused to hire women until required by law, because he thought them the worst kind of attraction and distraction. “The key was the system”, Ozersky observes.
Part of that system was extremely astute real estate practices. McDonald’s invariably purchased land in strategic locations and then leased it back to the franchisees. Knowing they could be evicted, franchisees did whatever the parent company told them to do. And why not? It usually worked. This was completely different from the White Castle model, which had limited its own expansion by refusing to franchise its operations. And even though there were plenty of other hamburger chains, from Burger King to Jack in the Box to Wendy’s, none managed to equal McDonald’s extraordinary approach and growth.
Relations between Kroc and the McDonald brothers weren’t so easy to maintain, however. Kroc eventually bought them out for $2.7 million and a promise they could continue to operate the original San Bernadino outlet. By the time Kroc died in 1984, at age 81, there were 7,500 McDonalds worldwide. “The company is an icon of efficient and successful business and it is ingrained in popular culture throughout the world”, Andrew Smith concludes, noting the paradox that hamburgers are here to stay because the business model that produces them is here to stay. “It is this adaptability, constant innovation and systematic production that make it likely that in future the large hamburgers chains will continue to expand around the world.”
Perhaps. But it’s not that simple these days, certainly not for McDonald’s, as Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Super Size Me, so graphically demonstrated. Ozersky is more interested than Smith in exploring this emerging cultural contradiction in the appeal of hamburgers. “By the late 1960s, they had come to represent much of what people liked, or didn’t like, about America”, he writes. And by the first decade of the 21st century, they have also come to represent much of what people don’t like about the bland uniformity and unhealthy qualities and quantities of American food, as well as the dominance of American culture. You don’t have to like José Bové to see why hamburgers have become a symbol for America—love it, leave it or attack it, as the case may be.
Within the United States, hamburgers may remain the staple of the suburban backyard cookout, but many of those same suburbanites are now looking for more exotic tastes and experiences than those represented by the burger. This need not be a contradiction, however. As many a chic designer eatery illustrates, it is possible to take a basic hamburger and do things with it that Walter Anderson probably would have considered an unnatural act but that high-end American restaurant-goers nowadays consider obligatory options: bleu cheese and capers; wasabi paste and mango salsa; sun-dried tomatoes, avocado and sprouts. So, Ozersky asks, “is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity? Like any other symbol, the answer depends on who you ask.”
Sure it does, but as long as fries, ketchup and a milkshake are handy, there is only so much talking about food most people will tolerate. Word to the wise: Munch now, ask later.