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If William Blake can see the world in a grain of sand, Josh Ozersky can see America in a round patty of minced meat on a soft bun. What the parallel may lack in poetry it makes up for in flavour.

Ozersky has written a breezy book on the history of this most American of culinary delicacies, but he imbues the burger with a social significance that goes well beyond the simplicity of beef on bread. The story of the hamburger, he says, reflects all the important cultural developments in America since the early 19th century, so that this once-humble sandwich now ranks right up there with the Stars and Stripes and the Statue of Liberty as an iconic symbol of the great Republic. “Nothing says America like a hamburger,” he writes. Think America , think Whopper.

Even Americans abroad suffer a type of identity crisis when separated from the land of the free and the home of the burger. During my official tenure in London, I once commented in an interview that it was tough to find a good hamburger in this otherwise enlightened city. The observation generated more post than any of my far more weighty pronouncements and revealed the enduring British class division between those who stare down their long, offended noses at this American invention and those who lap it up.

The ancient origins of the hamburger may lie in the Central Asian steppes, a kind of McMongol, but in Europe this meat cake evolved into the “hamburger steak” — coarsely ground beef smothered in gravy that was cheap, cheerful, greasy and by necessity consumed with a knife and fork. The meal may have taken its name from the German city, which was a principal port of embarkation for the large number of German emigrants who came to the US in the 1840s; however, the “hamburger steak” was already in America to greet the Germans. Ozersky speculates that it travelled there much earlier via the beef-lovers of England and he points to a recipe in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery (1763) for substantiation.

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