A History of the Hamburger: As Told in (What Else?) The Economist Review of THE HAMBURGER: A HISTORY

(Gone: “Today, Friday, 16 May 2008”)

It is too hot, much much too hot. Self isn’t sure, but she thinks she heard a neighbor yell at hubby to stop blowering. Self held her breath, but this (perhaps imaginary) altercation was followed only by the dead-est silence, and then the sound of the lawn mower.

In the meantime, self is in the bedroom with the blinds closed. After a (lousy) breakfast at Breakers Cafe (chile omelet, with one thin slice of avocado on top, three dollops of sour cream), self fell into leaden sleep. When she awoke, the street outside was filled with the most intense, blinding heat, and all the hydrangeas’ leaves were curling.

Self opens The Economist of 26 April (still behind in her reading: yes, she knows) and finds this on p. 107:

“The Big Bite”: a review of The Hamburger: A History, by Josh Ozersky

This entertaining and informative book, which traces the burger’s evolution from working man’s snack during the Depression to symbol of American corporatism, is nothing less than a brief history of America in the 20th century.

Like many stories, this one starts long, long ago, with a castle. This castle had five-cent hamburgers instead of princesses, and rather than being in an enchanted forest, it was in Wichita, Kansas.

An ambitious fry-cook named Walter Anderson opened White Castle in 1921. He did not invent the hamburger (this book wisely steers around that controversy); he merely standardised its production, cooking dozens of pre-weighted, pre-shaped burgers at once on a dedicated griddle, and serving them on specially designed buns. The friendly grillman in a white paper hat, amicably chatting with customers as he formed meat into a patty and slapped it onto the grill next to cheese sandwiches and omelettes, gave way to the kitchen as assembly line, and the cook as infinitely replaceable technician.

The article goes on to describe with great exactitude the dimensions of a classic burger, as defined by yet another “genius” businessman, Ray Kroc: It must weigh 1.6 ounces and span 3 and 5/8 inches. It is “garnished with a quarter of an ounce of chopped onion, a teaspoon of mustard, a tablespoon of ketchup and a pickle slice” no larger than one inch in diameter.

Fascinating, simply fascinating.

Another Meditation on Mother’s Day

Self’s ex-Assumption classmate, Lourdes Valeriano, is a writer for Business Week.

Check out her great column on “Mother’s Day 2008,” here.

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