The politics of food production and consumption have probably never been more divisive than when considering burgers, meat products, how we kill the animal and why we eat it. Start with Upton Sinclair’s landmark 1906 novel The Jungle, a devastating exposé and critique of the meat industry in the United States, and go through Eric Schlosser’s 1999 book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, and the message is clear. From shortly after the start of the 20th century, through to the end, we have examed the process of how, why and where we eat what we eat.
We continue to ask ourselves these questions, to vary from the usual “All-American meal” of slaughtered cow flesh and sometimes latch on to healthier alternatives, but the fact remains constant. For many, the traditional burger is, has been, and shall always be the essence of who we are as Americans. We know the contents. We have developed all sorts of ingredients by which to create and enjoy the meal. By examining the context of this concrete and dependable meal, sometimes we reveal disturbing yet necessary truths.
Carol J. Adams’s Burger is the latest addition to Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series, and it’s one of the more interesting volumes. What is a burger? How is it different from a hamburger? She opens with an image of US Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in 1992, building what was then his persona of a burger-lovin,’ French fry eatin,’ milkshake grabbin’ good ol’ boy. The conversational punctuation is intentional here. By aligning himself with the voting demographic that eagerly consumed burgers without question, Clinton would guarantee himself the working class constituency. No matter the sexual indiscretions that would more clearly mark his character by the end of the decade, Clinton was a burger boy, the type of meat eater who would have bypass surgery and end up as a committed vegan decades later, but in 1992 he was all about the burgers. Adams doesn’t welcome discussion of the current White House occupant and his predilection for Big Macs, but the understanding is clear: How you absorb burgers says everything about how you can, or should, lead a nation.
Burger is concerned with many issues, and Adams does a good job taking us through the commerce, capitalism, American spirit that embodied the popularity of this meal by the mid-20th century. She brings in Ray Kroc, whose advice to the McDonald brothers was to “franchise the damn thing.” They didn’t, so he did, and the rest is fast food history. She notes that Kroc believed McDonald’s could be a new kind of American church, a place of worship, if you will. In the turn of the 19th into the 20th century people died of consumption; by the middle of the 20th century they could revel in all acts of conspicuous consumption. Such was the American spirit and way:
“The ‘Americanness’ of the hamburger… arises from the Western expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century… consumption itself is an aspect of the narrative of twentieth century United States.”
Was the burger inevitable? Adams cites such American business icons as Kroc (McDonald’s), Billy Ingram (White Castle), and Jim McLamore (Burger King.) Their autobiographies traveled the same route. Burgers were only a side effect of the main characteristic. These were businessmen who followed the route of Henry Ford, mass-producing their product through a careful and proven system. It wasn’t about quality of the product so much as volume. Adams effectively cites a monologue from the 2004 Danny Leiner film Harold and Kumar go to White Castle as evidence that the burger was key to the American dream for starry-eyed immigrants:
“Our parents… came to this country… very hungry. They wanted to live in a land… filled with hamburger stands… That land was America… This night… is about the American dream!”
If anything, Adams argues that the hamburger was (and is) the great equalizer. Good and bad movie characters ate them. They were born in the late 19th century at various county fairs and eventually popularized at world fairs in the early 20th century. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle graphically details the toxic ingredients of meat as prepared in the slaughterhouses of Chicago and it didn’t fully stop the consumption of burgers. They were convenient. It was all about American character. Adams writes:
“The hamburger as a product emerged during the transition from a culture of character and production to one of consumption and personality.”
Adams graphically details the production and development of burgers in those early years of the 20th century, and nicely segues into another thesis: “The ‘All-American’ burger’s main ingredient is from colonialism.” Beef had been a staple in British lives for centuries. The early Americans focused on pigs, but beef proved a more reliable and manageable element. There are more gruesome details to explore in Adams’s “How to slaughter a cow” section. She draws heavily and appropriately from Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation as she cites the job titles for those who disassembled cows by hand:
“…First Legger, Knuckle Dropper, Navel Boner…”
The connotations we can draw from burgers are a mixture of violence and sexuality. We know the former, and the latter also gets comprehensive attention. Adams notes how the notion of “fresh meat” as applied to the sex trade in Thailand takes on some different, dangerous connotations. Burger King’s “Whopper Virgins” ad campaign drew heavily on what she referred to as “…an old trope of the hamburger eater as masculinized colonizer who appropriates… eating a hamburger [was] a new form of deflowering from the perspective of colonialism.” She connects the idea of a “woman’s burger” to violent images from such sources as Hustler magazine, which once published a cover image of a woman being put through a meat grinder while publisher Larry Flynt declared “We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat.” From that it’s a clear and logical path to Donald Trump and his infamous 2006 Access Hollywood tape, where he declared his “right to consume women”. To the victor goes all the spoils, and Adams makes some interesting connections between the dark side of burger consumers and the sense of entitlement that comes with a mentality arguing that anything and everything can be consumed.
The middle of Burger concerns itself with the legal trials the product has initiated and received, specifically the 1996 Oprah Winfrey libel trial and “Mad Cow” disease. Winfrey was sued for slandering the industry, and she was acquitted of all charges. Adams writes:
“Were any of these body blows to the hamburger? Not really: the hamburger shakes them off and rises again. Still, the 1990s illustrated a pattern of seeing information as so dangerous that it must be contained.”
It’s in the final chapters about Veggie Burgers and Moon Shot Burgers that Adams provides the most compelling pictures. First of all, it seems that the age of the veggie burger is comparable to the meat burger. In fact, she cites findings as early as 2500 BCE and possible veggie burger precursors in India. There was the “religious meatless burger” from the Seventh Day Adventists and World War II Burgers that substituted meat as a way to contribute to the war effort. Apparently the connection most of us have to veggie burgers — counterculture ’60s-era ideologies — has deeper roots.
Go beyond the concrete obvious nature of the veggie burger and its development from a powdered box mix to something easily microwaveable, and enter the world of the scientifically created burger, the “clean meat”, whose purpose is to alleviate the environmental damage caused by eating cows (methane emissions the least among them.) It’s real meat grown in a laboratory from animal cells without the bloody consequences of animal slaughter. The possibilities are thrilling not just for those of us who don’t eat meat but also those who care about the future of the environment. Impossible Foods and Beyond Food are more immediately realistic than “Clean Meat”, but they’re all part of an interesting brave new world that deserves consideration.
It’s tempting to say that burger is a literary meal that fills the reader’s need, but that’s the essence of Adams’ quick, concise, rich exploration of the role this meat (or meatless) patty has played in our lives. No matter our predilections or the political implications that often go with what we choose to consume, it’s important to understand all sides of the matter. The burger has always been about change. No matter how we might want to deny it, there are many issues involved with our dietary choices:
“Are we ever just eating? We are consuming interspecies history, environmental history, national history, and gender politics. A hamburger is never just a hamburger, even in a dream. What are we giving ourselves that we do not want?”
The Object Lessons series, edited by Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, continues to provide great food for thought. The burger may be bloody and contaminated, made solely from soybeans and tofu, or manufactured through a laboratory from the stem cells of a beast that once roamed the earth. Whatever its source, it’s an adaptable and rich subject that Adams handles with energy, expertise, and good humor.