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An American Invention

July 3, 2008 By:
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I've been a pretty determined vegetarian for 20 years now. I began the shift in my eating patterns purely out of health concerns. I'd heard about all the things they were doing to beef to make it beefier, and I decided that I really didn't need to ingest any of it. So red meat went the way of all flesh. Then, after an incident in a shuk in India, when a vender there thought he might entertain our group by eviscerating a chicken, I cried fowl, so to speak, and rarely ate that either, preferring turkey, if forced. I eat fish still, and love it; I doubt seriously whether I could ever give it up for good, even on the grounds of sadistic treatment of helpless creatures (full disclosure: I also enjoy fishing immensely, but I do practice the catch-and-release method). These days, I am more sensitized to the plight of the animals and have pledged to let them live their lives in peace without me interfering, even indirectly. But fish still remain another matter altogether.

In the case of other white and red meats, there'd been no need to even declare a cessation of interest. Even before my wife and I became kosher, I never ate pork. Lamb was such a rare occurrence in my diet that it took no effort to ban it. I'd been appalled when I heard about what they did to soften up veal that I never let it pass my lips again.

In truth, my foot has slipped every once in a while; for example, I just had my first tiny taste of steak in several decades, and it was indeed a heavenly moment -- though that might have been due to how my son-in-law, an excellent cook, had prepared it. In the end, no matter how scrumptious that morsel, red meat wasn't my entree of choice that evening. In general, if I don't have a fish dish, then I try to stick to vegetables and fruits.

And yet, to fess up completely, I really do miss a good burger every now and again. I find veggie burgers and portobello-mushroom sandwiches satisfying substitutes for slabs of meat, but on occasion, I do find myself daydreaming about chowing down on a thick, juicy hamburger. The desire mounts as the warm weather descends and I get a whiff of those first charcoal fires of the season.

That's because, when it comes right down to it, there is nothing else like a piece of fine ground beef grilled to perfection and served with the works, a sentiment I'm certain Josh Ozersky would wholeheartedly agree with. In fact, he's written an entire book about the American need to enshrine the burger, which is called, with deadly accuracy, The Hamburger. The publisher is the estimable Yale University Press.

The Patty That Conquered a Country

Ozersky's little ode to joy on a bun is social history at its most flexible, rendered with an erudition and facility that will keep readers highly entertained, as well as informed. The author's credentials couldn't be more impeccable. Identified in the jacket-copy bio as "an American cultural historian and recognized authority on food," the writer is food editor/online for New York magazine. He's also written for The New York Times, the New York Post, Saveur and many other publications. His books include Meat Me in Manhattan: A Carnivore's Guide to New York.

The Hamburger would seem to be the next logical stop on his culinary-based literary journey. And once you've read this admittedly brief but resonant study of the patty that conquered America, you'll never be able to think about the hamburger in quite the same way again.

As Ozersky notes right at the start, the burger is not simply a "robust, succulent spheroid of fresh ground beef"; it's even more than "the birthright of red-blooded citizens." The hamburger is a symbol, but like most such items that have reached near-mythic status, "what the burger represents depends on who you ask."

This quintessential American sandwich "is not, like the flag or the vanished frontier, merely a plane upon which abstract national dreams are projected. The hamburger has its own history, a thick narrative line coming down through the chronicle of modern America. It's the story of European immigration in the 19th century and urbanization in the 20th, as the German 'Hamburg steak' evolved into hamburgers, gobbled by a rising class of urban factory workers. The sandwich later stars in the high-powered story of business on the march, as the hamburger, thanks to the innovations of the White Castle System and the McDonald's Corporation, became the Model T of prepared foods. It rides America's express lane to change via the postwar period's expanded highway system, inseparable from the suburban infrastructure that sprung up around it. And more: it closed up vast grasslands and built immense economies. It helped create the corporate culture that drives so many aspects of contemporary America. These realities made the burger matter and caused it to enter a plane of discourse where sandwiches rarely appear."

Reading this quick summary of hamburger history, which is also a capsulized version of the narrative line Ozersky follows in his book, you might scratch your head in wonder, asking: "The little hamburger really did all that?" And yet, once you make your way through the text, you'll hardly doubt all the wonders the author attributes to the mighty burger's reign.

For Ozersky, the hamburger morphs throughout its history (and most of America's), tacking and veering, "blown by the winds of the zeitgeist. From the raw meat gnawed by Tatars to the boundless ambitions of Ray Kroc to the weed-dream of Harold and Kumar [of the wildly funny film 'Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle'] to the goosed-up versions, composed of foie gras and Kobe beef, that made headlines in the American Century's fin de siècle, the hamburger has reflected (and sometimes shaped) American life."

And despite the fact that it's named for a German city, the hamburger is a 100-percent, red-blooded, all-American invention. It doesn't matter, he says, that Mongols "used to ride around with minced horsemeat under their saddles, on their way to some Hamburger-fueled havoc in the 13th century." Factlets like this may have found their way into print and onto the Web, but no one needs give them any credence.

Having settled this matter, the author then follows every lead and rumor, and investigates all the rival claims, about where in America the hamburger first made its appearance, whether it's in Seymour, Wis.; Hamburg, N.Y.; or Athens, Texas.

'The White Castle System'

It's all lots of fun to read, but the high point for me is Ozersky's examination of how in 1926, Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram transformed himself into the Henry Ford of hamburgers by creating "the White Castle System." At the time Ingram struck upon his new system, White Castle, the company he cofounded, was little more than "a regional chain selling nickel hamburgers in a few midsized wheat-belt cities."

But all that was about to change. As Ozersky notes, the company went on to transform the way people ate hamburgers, "and the change was not just a minor dietary one. Ingram could not have known that the hamburger would eventually become a multibillion-dollar business that would extend American culture from China to Peru, but he spoke of his little chain of burger stands in tones reserved to world conquerors, and that spirit is in no small part responsible for White Castle's success." Ingram even designed a spatula that flattened those beef patties till they just about squealed. People may even have heard them, since they rushed out by the thousands to eat them.

Conquering the world -- and not just America -- would have to wait for the even more standardized machinations of the McDonald's Corporation, but that's another whole story, though still part of Ozersky's fascinating tale. He rounds it all off with a discussion of why new immigrants like Harold and Kumar crave the burger -- and it's not just from weed-induced munchies. Along the way, he also points out that -- no matter the supremacy of White Castle and McDonald's -- the burger really captured the American imagination via the backyard barbecue grill, with Dad invariably at the helm, which seems just the right point to make as we fast approach July 4.

All of which leads me to believe that, no matter where you stand vis-à-vis red meat and burgers in particular, Ozersky's inquisitive mind and evocative prose will get the juices flowing and your mouth watering.

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