Empire of the Bun

The Hamburger: A History by Josh Ozersky

Books Food History Modern Life North America

If William Blake can see the world in a grain of sand, Josh Ozersky can see America in a round patty of minced meat on a soft bun. What the parallel may lack in poetry it makes up for in flavour.

Ozersky has written a breezy book on the history of this most American of culinary delicacies, but he imbues the burger with a social significance that goes well beyond the simplicity of beef on bread. The story of the hamburger, he says, reflects all the important cultural developments in America since the early 19th century, so that this once-humble sandwich now ranks right up there with the Stars and Stripes and the Statue of Liberty as an iconic symbol of the great Republic. “Nothing says America like a hamburger,” he writes. Think America , think Whopper.

Even Americans abroad suffer a type of identity crisis when separated from the land of the free and the home of the burger. During my official tenure in London, I once commented in an interview that it was tough to find a good hamburger in this otherwise enlightened city. The observation generated more post than any of my far more weighty pronouncements and revealed the enduring British class division between those who stare down their long, offended noses at this American invention and those who lap it up.

The ancient origins of the hamburger may lie in the Central Asian steppes, a kind of McMongol, but in Europe this meat cake evolved into the “hamburger steak” — coarsely ground beef smothered in gravy that was cheap, cheerful, greasy and by necessity consumed with a knife and fork. The meal may have taken its name from the German city, which was a principal port of embarkation for the large number of German emigrants who came to the US in the 1840s; however, the “hamburger steak” was already in America to greet the Germans. Ozersky speculates that it travelled there much earlier via the beef-lovers of England and he points to a recipe in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery (1763) for substantiation.

Whatever the case, beef was a rare treat in early urban America. Pork was the meat of choice, because it could be preserved in a variety of tasty ways. Bacon will always win out over beef jerky. The first revolution in hamburger history arrived in the second half of the 19th century. With the pioneer movement westward, the grasslands of the Great Plains were opened up to cattle-grazing. Mythmaking cowboys herded the steers to the railheads of the huge new railroad network that strapped the nation together. Chicago became the world’s biggest slaughterhouse, and refrigerated cars carried the meat into the heart of every American city. Suddenly, red-blooded beef was available to every red-blooded American.

So who flipped the first hamburger? The residents of St Louis claim that the first burger was cooked at the 1904 World’s Fair and the city recently celebrated a hamburger cent­enary. Not so, says Seymour, Wisconsin. Charlie Nagreen did it in 1885, and, to solidify the claim, Seymour opened the Hamburger Hall of Fame in 1990 (a must-see for any foreign visitor). But, then, Lou’s Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, has been shovelling hamburgers into the mouths of Yale students since 1895. Who to believe?

It doesn’t matter, writes Ozersky, because all of these were faux-burgers. They were served on slices of bread, not on a bun. And the bun is the essential, distinguishing basement and roof of hamburger architecture, because a) it provides a firm, crusty encasement to absorb the juice of the meat without going gooey; b) it consequently allows the diner to eat the thing with bare hands; and c) it thus liberates the diner to indulge that most American of American characteristics: mobility. The true hamburger, Ozersky concludes, is “as artfully self-contained as a Homeric hexameter”.

The Founding ­Father of the real American hamburger was Walter Anderson, who opened a hamburger stand in Wichita, Kansas, in 1916, and who not only developed the bun but also handcrafted a heavy steel spatula to mash down the patty and thereby give the illusion of more-ness (the original spatula is now in a glass case at the Ohio State Historical Society, a must-see for any foreign visitor). Anderson eventually went to work for Edgar Waldo Ingram, and the fusion of the two produced yet another great leap forward in hamburger history.

Ingram was the Babbitt of the burger, an irrepressible booster who in the 1930s recognised the opportunities presented by America’s burgeoning car culture, and through the new medium of mass advertising (“buy ’em by the sack”) convinced drivers and passengers alike that a quick hamburger was just the thing. His White Castle chain grew to 116 identical restaurants, each one sparkling bright and clean, and the hamburger moved from its working-class identification to its status as All-American. And Ingram’s White Castles formed the template for all the fast-food eateries that were to follow.

Ozersky goes on to analyse the many imitators and innovators — Big Boy, with its double-decker hamburger; Wimpy, named after a character in the Popeye cartoon; Burger King and the sensation of the Whopper; and, of course, the more familiar story of the McDonald Brothers and Ray Kroc, who perfected the precision-tool, Model-T manufacture of the hamburger as well as the highly productive system of owner-franchising.

Ozersky’s romping, often tongue-in-cheek book seems to end a chapter short. He gives scant attention to the suburban barbecue where the office-bound American dad becomes the red-meat, atavistic family provider; and he says almost nothing about the backlash against America’s fast-food imp­erialism abroad or against the explosion of fast-food obesity at home. Whether the hamburger is as iconic or culturally expressive as, say, Coca-Cola or baseball, could stimulate further scholarly debate. But Ozersky writes entertainingly, and he succeeds in making the point that the hamburger is… well… as American as apple pie.