The Round Sandwich

Ask me to describe a hamburger and I’ll indulge by saying that it’s a patty of meat, served between two semi-spheres of bun.

It’ll be a compact, if colorless, answer, but also an incomplete one. It won’t occur to me to qualify it as a sandwich. I guess, for most folks, a hamburger is just that—a hamburger.

This circular snack has acquired such an iconic status that it strains one to even conceive of it as one among the many types of sandwiches there are—a fact I realized only after reading, “The Hamburger,” by Josh Ozersky.

There’s another, and perhaps a more obvious reality that also escapes me. It’s that I can’t envision a time in America before the Golden Arches.

Yet, this global powerhouse and its gustatory-industrial product, haven’t been around forever.

In the mid-1850s, when German immigrants began arriving by the shiploads, they found the “Hamburg steak,” a dish familiar to them, already available in New York City’s freestanding food vendors.

That is to say that they didn’t bring the recipe with them from the German port city of Hamburg, after which the hamburger takes its name. It preceded them.

By the close of that century, Hamburg steaks (“minced or scraped beefsteaks, jazzed up with onions, a little nutmeg, and served with gravy”) were old hat, eaten both at home, in their discount form, and in restaurants, in their luxe versions.

Delmonico’s, New York City’s first fine-dining restaurant, founded by Swiss immigrants in 1824, listed it as its “most expensive item at 10 cents, twice the price of roast beef, pork chops, or a veal cutlet.”

Though immensely popular in the 19th century, for reasons best known to history, it shrank from America’s collective plate, until it “retreated forever into tinfoil trays and a few furtive, dismal Pennsylvania roadhouses.”

The 1920s was an intensely lively decade, bursting on the one end, with the cultural pyrotechnics of sensual jazz and the literary prowess of the likes of Scott Fitzgerald, and on the other, with the entrepreneurial fervor of ambitious men, with grandiose dreams and the rumbling of the assembly line.

It was in this climate that Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, the “Henry Ford of hamburgers,” founded White Castle, America’s first burger chain, in 1916. But, he wouldn’t have done it without the culinary chutzpah of a fry cook named Walter Anderson.

Up until then, a plethora of meat-filled sandwiches were palmed off as hamburgers—but none were, in the sense they’ve come to be known today.

He was the first to use a specialized bun, instead of sliced bread, to cook the meat on a very hot (500 degrees Fahrenheit) grill and to press down on the patty with a customized spatula made of high-strength steel.

“A hamburger,” Ozersky writes, is “defined by its being served on a bun. No, there is no doubt: on any kind of semantic or platonic level, no bun = no burger.”

An ace marketer, with an “evangelical zeal for uniformity,” and a love for mechanization, Ingram created the “template for all fast-food restaurants” in the world.

He saw to it that every one in his chain of Gothic-turreted, gleaming white restaurants efficiently cranked out the same product: little square burgers. Still, despite its initial growth, White Castle couldn’t conquer the world, its growth limited by its founder’s abhorrence of the very business strategy that’s the secret of McDonald’s enduring success.

The two McDonald’s brothers may well have invented of the “Model T of the food business,” but it was Ray Kroc, an irascible but brilliant businessman, who turned the company into a universally recognized brand.

He was a franchising evangelist. The concept worked marvelously because it conflated the “incentive of personal ownership” with the “managerial talents of big business.”

The milieu of the 1950s was conducive to McDonald’s expansion. Inspired by Germany’s Autobahn, President Dwight Eisenhower passed the Federal Highway Act in 1956.

A system of sturdy new roads sprang up. This gave a huge fillip to auto companies. Automotive tailfins appeared. People were mobile.

They moved out to affordable homes in the suburbs where they sat around their television sets. Backyard barbecues were social affairs. Drive-ins became haunts of the young. Space-age designs of Googie architecture came of age.

In all of this, the hamburger was a part. It was the “most mobile, the efficient, and satisfying sandwich ever devised,” convenient for holding with one hand, and dialing the steering wheel with the other.

The next time I buy a hamburger, I’ll try to remember its bun-bound story.

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