A little over a century ago, the New York street food of choice was the oyster, which grew so abundantly that rich and poor alike ate them in vast quantities. That period feels distant and fantastic, partly because oysters are now a luxury food, and partly because it’s hard to imagine a national cuisine not dominated by the hamburger.
The signature American sandwich has always been an unapologetically demotic food — at least until recently — but Ozersky’s cultural history emphasizes three principal phases in our collective consumption: first, its murky origins in “hamburger steak,” first served in the U.S. but associated with immigrants from the port city of Hamburg; second, the early days of White Castle in the 1920s, when the preparation of burgers became a science and an art; and finally the postwar McDonald’s era, when a ruthless entrepreneur named Ray Kroc took the fast-food model and made it franchisable nationwide, and then worldwide.
The burger is, Ozersky notes, an irreducible food, a “gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato.” Yet somehow, with each phase, innovations prevailed. White Castle figured out that it could cook faster and more evenly and use griddle space more efficiently if it served square burgers, not round ones, and poked a hole in the center. McDonald’s embraced the all-Styrofoam-and-paper service area, streamlining itself into absurd profitability. And Dave Thomas, the genius behind Wendy’s, invented the drive-through window, capitalizing on the sandwich’s key virtue — its portability. You can eat a hamburger as you drive (try that with an oyster).
The Hamburger is short but comprehensive, heavy with interesting detail about the habits of American diners and restaurateurs. (It would be better if it were even leaner; the gratuitous lessons in pop sociology should be trimmed first.) One serious omission, though, is a realistic discussion of the scale of the industry it describes, which we all know is staggeringly large, but it is in fact even larger than most appreciate. The amount of beef McDonald’s alone uses in a year is so great that if the cows supplying its restaurants were all in one herd, and were being killed Blackfoot-style by stampeding them off a cliff 20 feet wide, McDonald’s gauchos would have to be rushing the herd off that cliff from dawn to dusk, every day of the year, to satisfy demand. The pop and sizzle of hamburgers conceal the frantic moos of an unfathomable number of animals, and it would be nice to have some acknowledgment of their sacrifice.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com