A McDonald has finally opened below my office, and it set me thinking about how nothing quite defines the American food experience as much as a hamburger. Indeed, some say that's the only thing American about food. I grew up thinking burgers to be a snack, but Americans seem to chomp it down for breakfast, lunch, dinner - sometimes all of the above and a few in between.
Pizza, taco, fried chicken are all world-dominating American inventions but in sheer sales and in cultural significance all pale in front of the Hamburger. They've have seeped into every inch of American life. Fine dining to backyard barbecues, birthday party to funeral, sports game to board meeting, there is little of culinary significance in America that does not have a burger connection.The key is probably simplicity and versatility and (usually) its cheap, quick, satisfying and portable. The basic burger has exactly two core ingredients - a chopped patty (usually beef, but even potato has been known to work) and bread. Even a one-armed student who thinks instant coffee is cooking can make a burger, yet one need not end there - almost anything can be added to a burger (and has been, at some point). At the other end of the cooking scale, Parisian chefs with strings of Michelin stars transform it with unbearable exotica, delicate technique, funny names and price it more than Google's IPO.
In case you're wondering about the picture on the right, its the $175 "Richard Nouveau" version from the Wall Street Burger Shoppe, topped of all things with real gold flakes. Its the most expensive burger in the world that's on regular offering. In case you're wondering, yes they still have it on their menu, though there seem to be plenty of $4 choices too.
Its only to be expected that the origins of the burger is disputed; most popular foods boast of obscure origins and this is no exception. The origin of the name, too, is somewhat in dispute - some insist it is Hamburg, NY but its far more likely to be Hamburg, Germany - a pre-eminent port that before air travel most Germans migrating to the Americas passed through. What is undisputed is that there's no dearth of people claiming credit for the invention; being the first to put a flattened meatball in a bun is apparently a big deal. Even legislatures have gotten into the act - at least four US states (Oklahoma 1995, Connecticut 2000, Texas 2006, Wisconsin 2007) have official proclamations declaring (the state in question) to be the official home of the hamburger. A nice article on the history of the American Hamburger can be found here. And here's a whole blog just about burgers.
The significance of the burger, though, is more than in just as food. A burger defines what we have come to think of as fast food - neither traditional street service, nor a proper sit-down restaurant experience. Its like a street vendor brought into a restaurant. On the back of the hamburger, White Castle invented the modern fast food chain in 1921 - look where that led. McDonalds came along some years later, and look where THAT led. The burger should probably be credited for spreading Americana worldwide more effectively than Barbie dolls, Bush jokes or MTV. Its a food that everyone loves to hate. American obesity, unchecked capitalism, animal cruelty, the corruption of youthful tastes - much has been loaded on the shoulders this humble round variant of a sandwich.
The problem is, a decent burger is one of those things that never fail to inspire lust and greed (even among the principled haters of fast food, of which I usually am one). I'm feeling the pangs just looking at the picture. Well, there's a Mac downstairs...