Given the ubiquity of the all-beef patty and the global spread of the golden arches, one can be forgiven for struggling to imagine America before the burger. In The Hamburger, out April 22, New York magazine food writer Josh Ozersky traces the origins and obstacles of a sandwich that—more than apple pie or hot dogs—defines the nation’s diet and forever shaped the American business model. “The hamburger—compact, standardized, and mass-produced, coming at the world as an irrepressible economic and cultural force—matters because of the infrastructure created for it and how it changed the world,” Ozersky writes.
Into his grinder go bits of history (the sandwich’s sloppy evolution from chopped Hamburg steak to all-beef burger atop a soft, golden-brown bun) and market-shaping innovations (Bill Ingram’s custom White Castle spatula, that flattened burgers into the mass-produced patties we take for granted today and boosted business by allowing one flipper to efficiently handle more burgers on the grill). The very franchisees who allowed McDonald’s to dominate the fast-food landscape were the same independent-minded entrepreneurs who bristled at Ray Kroc’s innumerable rules. Yet their corporate-bucking inventions have gone on to become some of McDonald’s biggest sellers—the Big Mac and the Egg McMuffin, to name just two. Wendy’s square patty was meant to suggest nonconformity and homemade hamburgers; Burger King’s Whopper was introduced at the whopping price of 29 cents at a time when most all burgers cost 15—yet it dominated the big-burger market for almost 20 years before McDonald’s fired back with the Quarter Pounder.
As the book’s chronology approaches the present, Ozersky’s pace quickens, and though his analysis is no less sharp, his confidence in our attention span seems to flag. A deft dissection of R. Crumb’s and Harold & Kumar’s additions to the burger canon leaves us craving additional moments of pop culture analysis. And as a food critic, he must have more to say on the haute hamburger trend (DB Bistro’s $120 foie-gras-and-truffle burger, anyone?) than the scant pages afforded here. As a whole, The Hamburger is a quick, nuanced and—all right, we’ll say it—juicy read, if slightly on the lean side at only 133 pages. Like a good burger, it hits the spot.