The Hamburger: An American Lyric


Arts & Culture


Campaigning for president in 1992, William Jefferson Clinton proved himself to be the citizen’s candidate by his penchant for hamburgers. Burgher: citizen of the city. There he would be, according to the press, stopping in for hamburgers at local diners. Bill Clinton, not just the citizen’s candidate, he was the citizen candidate; he liked the average Joe’s kind of food (not the sloppy joe; though they use a burger bun, they are not burgers). “It’s the economy, stupid,” was the mantra of the Clinton campaign. The burger is the citizen’s economic food choice, the Everyman’s lowest common denominator.

His opponent, President George H. W. Bush, on the other hand, scion of a prominent New England family with a banker father who became a senator, had been cast as out of touch with the average citizen of the United States. “Poor George,” the future Texas governor Ann Richards famously said in 1988, “he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Not Bill Clinton: from the media reports, one got a sense he had been born with a hamburger in his mouth. And not a hamburger like President Lyndon Johnson’s favorite hamburger in the midsixties, made from thirty-five-dollar-per-pound ground-up aged sirloin. (Factoring in inflation that would be about $280 in 2017.) 

During Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 1992 and his early years in office, the hamburger was riding high, with estimates that “86.6 percent of all Americans order[ed] some type of hamburger sandwich at least once in 1994.” But the times, they were a-changing. In 1993, the Boca Burger appeared, a veggie burger made from soy protein and wheat gluten. The hamburger-eating presidential candidate began to change his choice of burgers in his early years in the White House, when he began scarfing down Boca Burgers—huge quantities of which were being ordered by First Lady Hillary Clinton. (In six weeks in 1994, four thousand Boca Burgers were purchased by the White House.) Some anxiety from animal-flesh producers greeted the news of the Boca Burger’s popularity at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A spokesperson for the American Meat Institute (AMI) stated, “Nothing will replace the American hamburger. The AMI is confident that President Clinton is still eating plenty of real hamburger, too.”

By the time First Lady Hillary Clinton became presidential-candidate Clinton, Bill proved the AMI wrong. He followed a predominantly vegan diet.

The hamburger, as both idea and food item, is tightly coiled within the experience of being citizens of the United States. It is seen as a democratic, inclusive food. Elisabeth Rozin invokes the pattern and rhythm of Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Rozin sings the praises not of freedom but of “finely particulate meat, ground or shredded or minced or chopped.” It is easy to prepare, she says, but equally important, “it offers the full nutritional and sensory experiences of meat to everyone—the young, the old, the toothless, and the tired.”

Citizen Burger Bar in North Carolina proclaims, “A delicious burger is your right.” Following  the trope, they identify the burger and beer as “essential liberties.” Ray Kroc in the film The Founder gives a pep talk to the McDonald brothers—whom he will soon be undercutting—by echoing nationalist themes. He exhorts them, “Franchise the damn thing,” adding, “from sea to shining sea.” He declares, “Do it for your country. Do it for America.” He promises soon the golden arches will become just as, if not more, important than the cross on the church and the flag on the courthouse; McDonald’s must aspire to be “the place where Americans come together to break bread.” Why, “McDonald’s could be the new American church.”

Crosses. Flags. Arches. John Lee Hancock’s movie represents Kroc’s view that the franchising of McDonald’s is a story of civic accomplishment: the hamburger, the cheap food that everyone could eat. It fit the hand of a child; it could be held in the hand while driving; truly, you did not need teeth to eat many versions. (“There is nothing at McDonald’s that makes it necessary to have teeth,” the novelist and social critic Vance Bourjaily opined in the 1970s.)

The hamburger owes its existence to the United States, in part because the United States was the animal-flesh-eating democracy of the nineteenth century. Per capita consumption of animal flesh far outpaced the European places most immigrants hailed from. The  development of the hamburger in the twentieth century consolidated the association between democratic rights and animal-flesh eating. Six years before a McDonald’s opened in East Berlin, in 1982, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) created a McDonald’s-like fast-food burger place called the Grilletta. Before the Berlin Wall crumbled, the Soviet-run GDR desired to demonstrate its “with-it-ness” with a burger joint—offering, of course, a better burger than any in the West. They wanted to out West the West.

I am not going to review all the ideas about the history of the hamburger. I will not wonder whether the rampaging Tartars eating their ground horsemeat created the hamburger’s precursor. I won’t speculate on whether European immigrants whose point of demarcation was Hamburg salted their animal flesh to keep it fresh and arrived at the United States having innovated the “hamburger.” Or was it the sailors from Hamburg? Did Delmonico’s serve a Hamburg steak in 1834? Much ink is spilled on these issues and many others, drawing on legends, vague historical facts, fakelore masquerading as folklore, secondary but not primary sources, word of mouth, and assertions by various cities and counties of their role in the history of the hamburger. Here a Hamburg steak (or Salisbury steak) evolves into hamburger, there an immigrant or sailor brings the hamburger along with their baggage, and dotted throughout the United States, we can find the very birthplace of the hamburger itself.

Forget about the Tartars and Hamburg steak and Salisbury steak and sausage and meat loaf and meatball and the ancient Chinese text with a recipe for a hamburger-like food; the hamburger’s origin story must plainly be from here, not over there, before we export it over there.

The Americanness of the hamburger—Bobby  Flay’s “perfect sandwich,” no “the perfect meal”—arises from the Western expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century. This is when economic, geographic, and industrial factors combined to favor cow flesh over pig flesh, and to deliver this cow flesh to growing markets. Eating its sizzling, fatty bulk between buns fulfills the iconic role of the U.S. consumer. As countless historians have shown, consumption itself is an aspect of the narrative of twentieth-century United States.

Being the citizen’s food, the hamburger is celebrated by the citizen—in the form of food critics and culinary historians—with a “gee-whiz” tone. They find in its story a story of progress itself. Hamburger-eating historians of the burger see inevitability in the statistics that show the global reach of the hamburger. They gobble down its status, forwarding their own favorites, and so offering one further salute to the triumphalist rhetoric of the hamburger through personal testimony. They join the stories told by those who prevailed: Ray Kroc (McDonald’s) in his 1977 autobiography, Billy Ingram (White Castle) in a talk in 1964, Jim McLamore (Burger King) in a posthumously published autobiography. With red-blooded tropes, the arc is upward, a teleological logic to the prevailing of the hamburger. Telling the history chronologically becomes a form of obeisance to the success of mass production. For them, the hamburger’s history is juicy, not problematic.

The narrative that grants inevitability to the success of the hamburger is confirmed by the hamburger consumers themselves in their purchases. But let’s pause and recognize that, as the Diner’s Dictionary succinctly states, “the  concept  of  a  small  cake  of  minced beef, grilled or fried, is an ancient one,” and the designation “hamburger” is a new name for an old food. Before there were hamburgers, there were individual-portion-sized cutlets. The Oxford Companion to Food identifies the chop—“slices of meat in the size of individual portions”—as a forerunner of hamburger. Like beta versus VHS (predigital technology, if you are wondering), there were different hamburgers, for instance White Castle’s square versus the traditional circle. But these iterations involved the reshaping of animal flesh to a more universal and consistent size with interchangeable parts. It is as American, and industrialized, as Henry Ford’s assembly-line production model.

With our palates influenced by nostalgia, we experiment with our burgers, but often within limit. There remains something that cannot be a burger, depending on who is deciding: hamburger from cows or not, from animal flesh or not, with condiments or not, bun or not.

Toward the end of a very long evening in which Harold and Kumar overcome a variety of obstacles in their pursuit of a White Castle hamburger, Kumar makes a speech about the meaning of immigration to the United States. In his telling, hamburgers form the heart of being a citizen of the United States.

So you think this is just about the burgers, huh? Let me tell you, it’s about far more than that. Our parents came to this country, escaping persecution, poverty, and hunger. Hunger, Harold. They were very, very hungry. They wanted to live in a land that treated them as equals, a land filled with hamburger stands. And not just one type of hamburger, okay? Hundreds of types with different sizes, toppings, and condiments. That land was America. America, Harold! America! Now, this is about achieving what our parents set out for. This is about the pursuit of happiness. This night … is about the American dream.

Inspired, they take a leap that brings them to the White Castle, and we soon see them at a table filled with those famous sliders. The symbolism of the hamburger may seem fixed (equal to the entire United States), yet Kumar did not consume White Castle hamburgers in the movie scenes. The actor who plays Kumar, Kal Penn (Kalpen Suresh Modi), is a vegetarian and ate veggie burgers. Ten years before White Castle introduced a vegetarian slider to its customers, they custom-made veggie sliders for Penn to consume as Kumar.

If Harold and Kumar traversed the United States in the 1970s with Charles Kuralt, they would have passed by (or passed up) bridge burgers, Cable burgers, Dixie burgers, Yankee Doodle burgers, Capital burgers, Penta burgers (inside the Pentagon). Or they might have chosen (or rejected): “grabba burgers, kinga burgers, lotta burgers, castle burgers, country burgers, bronco burgers, Broadway burgers, broiled burgers, beefnut burgers, bell burgers, plush burgers, prime burgers, flame burgers … dude burgers, char burgers, tall boy burgers, golden burgers, 747 jet burgers, whiz burgers, nifty burgers, and thing burgers.”

You can butter your burger and serve it on cornbread, or with peanut butter and bacon. Thanks to The Paris Review, you can make Ernest Hemingway’s hamburger recipe (with garlic, capers, scallions, seasonings, and egg as binder). You can get your burger with Fritos (in Texas, of course), or a hard-boiled egg.

The names and varieties suggest that hamburgers are pluralistic like the United States itself. It’s working-class food elevated, served in places called Castles and Royal and King. In movies, really bad guys eat hamburgers (Pulp Fiction) and really good guys eat hamburgers (American Graffiti). But it turns out the whiteness of the characters of American Graffiti mirrored the whiteness of the servers at the diner. The original Mel’s Diner used in American Graffiti, set in 1962, did not let blacks work at the counter in the early 1960s. (Oh, sixties California nostalgia, how you do disappoint.)

The year 1962 was notable for another burger: Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Hamburger. It was not made from animal flesh but from canvas filled with foam rubber and cardboard boxes. The sculpture was sewn together by the master seamstress Patty Mucha—Patty, reminding us of a burger’s definition: it is a patty, usually circular in shape.

Oldenburg believed art should relate to everyday life, its realities, its objects. Hard objects he made soft. Large objects he made small. And small objects, like the burger, he made large. On January 27, 1967, the Art Gallery of Ontario purchased the Floor Burger (née Giant Hamburger) for two thousand dollars. Art students protested the purchase of Oldenburg’s Floor Burger, asking, “What is art if this is art?” “What about a Heinz ketchup bottle?” they challenged. They offered to donate a huge ketchup bottle to the art gallery—still hewing to the hamburger narrative, as ketchup is the preferred condiment. Maybe they should have asked, “What is a burger?”

Curators are found not only in art museums overseeing giant floor burgers; they can be found in restaurants where they are creating veggie burgers. “Sometimes you see veggie burgers made with a hundred ingredients, a kitchen-sink burger,” said Chloe Coscarelli, the chef and co-owner of Chloe’s. “It’s better when you curate a burger.” The Oxford Companion of Food reminds us that “consumption of things like hamburger, that is, cooked round patties or rissoles of meat, dates back a very long way.” Burger, cutlet, rissole: they are not only made of animal flesh. Is the haggis waiting offstage to be transformed into the veggie burger? (Just kidding.) Or is the falafel waiting simply a flattening into a patty? (More seriously.)

Like the fraught concept of “citizen” itself, the burger is not one thing. Popeye subverted the idea of the hamburger in 1929 when spinach gave him (and anyone else who ate it) strength and the hamburger eater was the wimpy one. The Popeye cartoons were so popular during the Depression, sales of spinach in America increased by 33 percent. Now there are spinach burgers with or without hamburger.

The hamburger, long the all-American meal, has always contained an element of instability to it, not only because it can rot. From references in popular culture to investors like Bill Gates seeking to find the non-animal burger that can feed the world, the burger’s identity is as malleable as that patty of protein itself before it is thrown on a grill. Perhaps both the burger and the citizens it feeds are changing.


Carol J. Adams is the author of numerous books, including The Sexual Politics of Meat. She is the co-editor of several anthologies, including, most recently, Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth (co-edited with Lori Gruen) and The Carol J. Adams Reader (2016).

Excerpted from Burger, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.