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10 august 2011

Bruce Kraig's Hot Dog: A Global History is largely about the manufacture of hot dogs, which would not exist without complicated industrial processes. Hamburgers, as Andrew Smith observes in Hamburger: A Global History, are comparatively simple to make. Some scraps of meat, a grinder, a grill, and a bun: special sauce and sesame seeds are optional. Much more significant to the global history of the hamburger is the marketing of the fast-food meal. To write a global history of hamburgers is to study the standardization of the world's lunch habits and the hegemony of multi-national chain "restaurants."

For reasons only loosely related to their substance, hot dogs tend to be sold from carts or stands by small operators; hamburgers are sold in the aforementioned restaurants, which can range from sit-down establishments with booths, laminated menus, and glass ketchup bottles, to the great American drive-thru. McDonald's actually began life as a "restaurant" where you could neither sit down and eat nor wait for a carhop to serve you. Instead, you parked, you went in, you got your bag of burger, and you sat in your car and ate it.

Why did this seem like a good idea? As Smith shows, hamburgers were a late-19th-century phenonemon long associated with roadside diners, lunchwagons, and city drugstore counters. McDonald's and its many imitators broke ground in mid-20th-century suburbs, where everyone drove cars. And nobody much wanted to associate with anybody else: that was why they'd moved to the suburbs to begin with. To eat a McDonald's burger, you didn't have to risk rubbing elbows with one of "them," even though demographically speaking "they" weren't plentiful in the neighborhood anyway. Instead you took your meal back to the bench seat of your Buick and consumed it in the bosom of your nuclear family. That was the original Happy Meal: family and fat, but no cooking or dishes.

I was in high school before I first ate at a McDonald's; it was 1974, I think, before a McDonald's opened in the suburbanizing small town where I attended high school. Hamburgers per se I had eaten by the hundreds; my father would cook them on a cast-iron pan with plenty of salt, and sometimes a slice of cheese food. But I associate hamburger heaven with the Big Boy, specifically Topps Big Boy in suburban northern Illinois, where my grandfather would sometimes take us as a treat. Big Boy was inexplicably always Somebody's Big Boy, not a true chain brand, but the stocky cartoon character was the same at all of them. (Smith explains the unique arrangement, licensing rather than true franchising, that led to the loose brand "Big Boy"). I still remember Topps Big Boy as one of the unrepeatable apices of my youthful food experience. Though I probably didn't eat the true Big Boy, a double-decker slathered with dubious substances. A generous plain burger on a seeded bun was all it took to make me permanently nostalgic.

I haven't eaten many burgers in the past two years, but I reckon that at the rate of about two a week for the half-century I've been eating solid food, I have probably consumed about five thousand hamburgers in my lifetime. Somehow that doesn't seem like that many, given that I love burgers and am surrounded by them. I probably have peers who have eaten 25,000 or 30,000 hamburgers. Hamburgers constitute one of the greatest movements of biomass in the Earth's history. Smith keeps noting that McDonald's itself is the largest, or one of the largest, purchasers of beef, purchasers of potatoes, owners of real estate, and so forth, on the planet. Hot dogs are comparative wienees.

Smith, Andrew F. Hamburger: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2008.