A National Treasure
Nothing could be simpler than the hamburger--a juicy patty of ground beef, a soft bun, maybe some cheese and condiments. But icons are never really that simple, and perhaps more than any other food, the hamburger is an American icon.
The hamburger's early history is surprisingly murky. Food mythology links the ultimate fast food to Genghis Khan's Mongolian warriors in the 13th century, but most food historians dismiss any connection between the Golden Hordes and the Golden Arches. The name is at least an indirect reference to a seasoned ground beef dish popular in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 1800s. But the critical moment, "when burger met bun," definitely happened on American shores, says food writer John Edge. There are at least four credible creation stories, tracing the original "hamburger sandwich" to Connecticut, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Texas. The modern burger gained national prominence at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. The hamburger's early reputation was decidedly suspect, given that meat was often only ground once it had begun to spoil. Detailed in David Gerard Hogan's 1997 history, Selling 'em by the Sack, that all changed in 1921, with the advent of the first burger chain, White Castle, in Wichita, Kan. The founders set out to make the hamburger safe and nutritious and spawned a thousand imitators in the process.
Own wrapper. But how did the burger become a national obsession? "It matters that it's a sandwich," says Case Western Reserve University historian Alan Rocke. "And it matters that it's meat." America was always land rich and labor poor, he notes. That meant a taste for meat--large expanses of land were well suited to raising stock--and a habit of eating on the run. In his book Hamburgers & Fries, Edge credits the burger's supremacy to its twofold portability. With meat, lettuce, and tomatoes encased in a bun, he says, "it's a meal that comes in its own wrapper." And it's uncomplicated, allowing for cultural portability as well. Edge found dozens of local varieties.
The best burgers--even some of the mass produced--are marvels of culinary construction, built up in layers with all the intentionality and pleasing loft of the elaborately tiered "architectural cuisine" developed by Chef Alfred Portale at New York's Gotham Bar and Grill. And sitting at a lunch counter, taking in the sensuous pop and splatter of grilling patties and the efficient choreography of a skilled short-order cook, it's hard not to see the origins of what pricey establishments call performance cuisine. Find the right diner, and a burger isn't just a meal--it's dinner and a show. Dressed up or down, or tarted up with foie gras and truffles, says Edge, "what we're left with is an abiding respect for the basic burger."
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.