The hamburger has risen in popularity in the United States since the development of the fast food industry in 1950’s, a decade which marks the rise of automation, drive-thru consumers, and systolic blood pressure. While the hamburger was always a staple of western diners, its firm hold on American popular culture was not easily attained. Yet within relatively few years of franchised “burger joints,” as they are referred to by the nation’s youth, billions have been served. The hamburger has been featured in media ranging from the comedic skit comedy of Saturday Night Live, with Dan Akroyd and John Belushi’s “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger” routine, to the counter culture movie Pulp Fiction, which takes into account the mobility of the hamburger into other cultures. Few hamburger eaters today, however, are aware of the origins of this sandwich and exactly how it took America’s hungry by storm.
While historians cannot pinpoint the first time a ground beef patty was placed amongst the folds of a sliced bun it was undoubtedly a watershed discovery in food preparation. Many excavations have turned up ancient grills with the charred remnants of what may have been medieval whoppers throughout out the island of Great Britain. Studying pollens found within the gristle, scientists have placed the preparation of the first hamburger sometime within the rule of King Henry VIII. Evidence suggests the rather portly King of England grew tired of vigorously chewing the beef and mutton steaks prepared by his cooks. Henry VIII demanded that banquet meats be diced into small, chewy, yet appetizing platters. The court’s cooks, quick to please the King’s raging appetite rather than tempt another execution in Henry VIII’s already bloody empire, diced the choicest steaks into a consistency similar to that of today’s ground round. The chefs, however, found themselves quick to mistake the delicacy as food for the royal dogs. Fearing a disastrous mistake to be indubitably followed by as disastrous a death for the head chef, the meat was placed between two pieces of sliced bread along with servings of lettuce and tomato to create an unmistakable presentation. The hamburger stayed a part of British cuisine for centuries despite the best efforts of Queen Victoria to quash the meal, along with other, similar foods that stemmed from the burger such as the sloppy Joe, because it encouraged the use of bare hands as a utensil despite any formal setting. The flame for a grilled patty stayed strong in the hearts of common men and carried over to the Americas via the indentured servant institution established in British colonies.
The burger continued into the twentieth century with no more fanfare than grilled chicken and fried sturgeon. It wasn’t until the first McDonalds opened its doors in California that America focused it’s limelight on an all beef patty, special sauce, pickles, onions, and lettuce, on a sesame seed bun. The advent of revolutionary grilling machinery and the conversion of the common grease gun into a special sauce shooter were certainly the impetus of the burger’s raging popularity, but one set of underemployed teenagers flipping grease laden patties can only serve so many couples in two-tone Chevy’s. It was at this point that corporate America foresaw the hamburger’s potential to take America’s youth by storm; an edible hula-hoop, as it were. The McDonald’s name was purchased and wondrous world of franchised fast food was born. New stores opened across the US not unlike Starbucks inexorable spread in Manhattan. It wasn’t long before other entrepreneurs saw their chance to take a hold of the consumer market before every America identified McDonald’s as the only vendor of milk shakes, deep-fried chicken, and, most importantly, the focus of America’s binge, the Big Mac. In a desperate effort to distract America’s wide eyes and watery mouths, new franchises schemed up marketing magic to attract the fuzzy embrace of pop-culture. The most daring attempt was that of Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s. Following what he believed to be the mantra of his target tubs, “it’s hip to be square,” he fashioned an unheard of square burger. Since the dawn of chopped meat, the burger had always been served in mounds or patties to fit the shape of its platter: the bun. This revolutionary design was in fact more efficient than the patty, but it never drew the attention that Dave Thomas had hoped for. McDonald’s golden arches still grace the king of the burger industry with hangers-on like Wendy’s and Burger King falling ever behind.
America’s youth may never understand the sweat and tears that went into its burgers in order to form the convenient mecca of drive-by windows and 60-second service that exist today, but that isn’t of any consequence to the corporations who bring them free smiles, the 99 cent menus, and triple bypass surgery. It seems however that the regime of the hamburger may be faltering to pop-culture’s movement towards health and well-being. And so the legacy of the hamburger lives on until soy burgers develop some semblance of taste.