Friday, December 4, 2009

America Food: The Hamburger

Any semiotician can tell you, in America, a hamburger is not just a hamburger. And Josh Ozersky's The Hamburger: A History is full of gems and golden nuggets of hamburger-related info which provide testimony of exactly how true that statement is. For a variety of reasons I won't bother to get into, I've become an amateur hamburger-as-American-pop-cultural-icon historian in my own right. This isn't bragging, I swear. I'm just for those reasons I can't fully explain very fascinated by the subject and have culled a little knowledge of it as a result. So when I learned of The Hamburger, I of course giddily acquired and nerdily pored over it to its completion (only 130 pages, not very tough at all to get it read). Anyone looking for a good primer on the hamburger as an American pop culture mainstay and what it took to get there (and really who wouldn't be?), I politely encourage you to look no further than Ozersky's book.

Why? The Hamburger is edifying. How? In many ways -- for example, guided by Ozersky's central thesis, which to paraphrase is, the hamburger as we know it today is a uniquely American creation and over time has, both positively and negatively, come to emblematize the American way of life, one is led through a fascinating description of the nascency and evolution of the hamburger and, necessarily along with it, the hamburger stand. Thinking about the hamburger as an emblem of abundance, size, value, and multiple tiers of efficiency, to name but a few, Ozersky showcases through the hamburger's rise to prominence why it was and remains America's most ubiquitous sandwich.

He starts by providing some examples of the progenitors of the hamburger, citing a recipe in Hannah Glasse's Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1763), which describes the proper way to prepare a Hamburg sausage, a meat that hardly resembles anything we'd today refer to as a hamburger. But still as Ozersky notes, "Glasse's recipe is the Australopithecus of the hamburger family, a barely recognizable progenitor, primitive and inauspicious, but the missing link nonetheless -- the earliest shared ancestor." The Hamburg steak grew from the 18th century sausage, and was served minced or scraped according to Ozersky. It was affordable and similar to meats already popular in densely populated port towns like Hamburg, where scores of immigrants and citizens often had no choice but to eat standing. In New York City, the more wieldy Hamburg steak made that task far easier. Ozersky also disputes the claim that Hamburg steak was a German import by arguing first with the precedent of Glasse's 18th century English recipe and that:
". . . obviously, people from Hamburg wouldn't call their own brand of minced beefsteak Hamburg steak any more than a coffee shop in Dallas serves Texas chili."
He then offers background of the provenance of White Castle and the role the chain played in paving the way for McDonald's and the many, many others that followed. The history of the hamburger from that point onward becomes inextricably linked to the rise of America's fast food culture.

For better or worse, the hamburger is America's most recognizable food export, our beefy, bready ambassador athwart the globe -- sorry, apple pie enthusiasts. We export the hamburger (and the hamburger industry) better than we do democracy. But why hamburgers? As Ozersky contends it is in part because there are no apple pie-focused (or for that matter any other comestible) fast food restaurants defining the American fast food-selling landscape. Ray Kroc, then, is very arguably the man most responsible for the massive explosion of fast food eateries and the McDonald's phenomenon's widespread popularity and duplication, and thus the rise of the hamburger as America's staple food. The hamburger has succeeded where other foods failed owing in large part to the fact that it's very portable and can be eaten on the go, unlike chicken and various barbecued meats commonly available at the drive-ins and hodge-podge of casual dining restaurants that predominated before the arrival of the fast food method -- invented by the McDonalds brothers in the early 1950s. Considering the revolutionary business model of the McDonalds brothers, it's also important to note that the hamburger is well suited to being prepared in large quantities very quickly. And the simple fact is that the hamburger does in most people's opinion taste very good. Combined, these basic facts have contributed pronouncedly to the hamburger's great fame, and all the controversy that was certain to come with it.

Ozersky's book is fun.

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