Burger on the Brain
Josh Ozersky is a committed carnivore. Now the editor of New York magazine's James Beard award–winning food blog, Grub Street, and a regular SAVEUR contributor, he has spent the past 20 years chronicling his obsessive hunt for superior steaks, chops, and sausages. In a new book, The Hamburger, Ozersky—who also goes by the pen name "Mr. Cutlets"—guides readers through the history of that most iconic of American foods, from its humble beginnings in 1906 at a Wichita, Kansas, White Castle to its luxe late period in white-tablecloth bistros across New York City. While asserting that the history of our country and the history of the burger have run on a parallel path, Ozersky draws several surprising conclusions: for instance, who would have guessed there was a connection between the Burger King Whopper and the H-bomb? We caught up with the author by phone recently and learned more about his burger-centric worldview.
Have you always been a meat maniac?
Yes. I had a solitary childhood in which only garlicky salami, juicy hamburgers, and rich, red steaks were my companions.
Is that what inspired you to write The Hamburger?
Actually, a friend of mine was editing a series on American icons for Yale University Press. I thought the hamburger would be a perfect subject. And in the end, it wound up being as much a history of America as a history of the hamburger.
How often do you eat burgers?
I try to have them two to three times a week. I'm very dogmatic about how I like a hamburger. It should never be more than five ounces. It should always be served on a white enriched, toasted bun. It should be topped with a slice of tangerine-colored, viscous American cheese.
I don't believe in condiments. I might put on a little onion, just for texture, but I don't use ketchup, I don't use mustard, I don't use mayonnaise. Those are what I'd call gastronomic prophylactics.
Not even a slice of tomato or lettuce?
That's the last thing I would ever put on my burger. I'm totally against the use of tomatoes. It's like pouring a shot of water on top of your hamburger.
So, sirloin or chuck: which cut makes the better burger?
Classically, the best cut is ground chuck. It's all about the fat-to-lean ratio. You want an 80/20 mix, though I prefer 70/30. A company called Pat LeFrieda in New York makes the definitive modern hamburger mix, and they use a combination of chuck, brisket, and short rib. BLT Burger, Shake Shack, and the Spotted Pig all use custom LeFrieda blends. They're about as good as you can get.
Do you prefer grain- and corn-fed beef to grass-fed beef?
I do. I'd never eat a grass-fed hamburger if I could avoid it. The truth is that animals that eat grass generally taste bad and animals that eat corn taste good. I know saying that goes against certain haute dogma, but the fact is that grass-fed meat is tougher and leaner and doesn't have any of the sweet flavors that we associate with great beef. In fact, a lot of fast-food hamburgers are made from South American grass-fed meat that has been mixed with belly fat from discarded dairy animals.
You devote many pages in your new book to the history of the burger franchise White Castle. What did you find so fascinating about the company?
White Castle invented fast food. [In the 1920s] America still found standardization very romantic. Later on, of course, the idea of an assembly line became anathema to modernists and bohemians and so forth, but at that point the idea of having thousands of objects that were exactly the same and accessible to everyone was incredibly appealing and novel.
In that way, Walter Anderson [one of White Castle's founders] was the Henry Ford of the hamburger. He was the first businessman to standardize food. From the start, every White Castle restaurant looked exactly the same, all the employees dressed the same way, all the cooks cooked everything the same way, the menus were all exactly the same—so, not only was it a novelty in business, but it was also the beginning of a uniform national culture. The America of the 19th century was regional; from town to town and state to state, things were different. Much of the reason that it's no longer like that is that companies like chain restaurants branded the landscape. White Castle was one of the first companies that aspired to transcend regionality.
Are you still a fan of White Castle?
I love White Castle. White Castle is the Colonial Williamsburg of hamburgers. The White Castle burger of today is very much the same as the one from the World War I era. The hamburgers have never gotten bigger. They're still just the same, tiny patties.
How was the hamburger's popularity fueled by the car culture of the 1950s and 1960s?
White Castle made fast food, but they were all walk-up restaurants. It was McDonald's that rode the fast lane to success thanks to the creation of the national highway system. They saw that the hamburger was the perfect mobile food—you could drive with one hand and eat a hamburger with the other. Americans are the most supremely mobile people. Thus, the drive-through was born.
You imbue the hamburger with a great deal of political significance, too, arguing, for instance, that "the creation of the Burger King Whopper was as inevitable as the hydrogen bomb". Hyperbole aside, what do you mean by that?
Well, because a hamburger is a commodity, it had to evolve to compete with other hamburgers. In the U.S., particularly after World War II, everything had to be bigger and stronger and heavier and flashier. The hamburger had to grow tail fins; essentially, the Whopper was the equivalent of a Cadillac. When it was invented, it was considered an outrageous, radical project, this enormous hamburger that cost 49 cents. But of course Americans wanted a bigger hamburger; how could they not? How un-American would it be to be satisfied eating one-ounce hamburgers? We could no more go on eating one-ounce hamburgers than we could go on driving model Ts.
You suggest that the availability and affordability of beef after the Second World War fed America's cold war global superiority complex. Can you explain that a bit more?
Well, even when Americans were relatively poor, they always prided themselves on how much meat they had—especially beef. It was part of the whole frontier thing. And the fact that our vast, oceanic ranges could supply beef even to the most impoverished Americans was a special point of pride. In the postwar era, when America seemed to be the only rich country in the whole world, it was a major pillar of cold war ideology that America was the land of plenty and that Americans were, as David Potter called them, the people of plenty. It was considered a major rebuke to the Reds every time an American ate a hamburger.
What role has the U.S. government played in making beef king?
The beef camp won its struggle against the pork camp the day that the U.S. government said you couldn't call a hamburger a hamburger if it had anything besides beef in it. The government also said that a hamburger could be made with any part of the cow. Let's face it; the feds have given the hamburger men a pretty free hand for most of our history to do anything they found expedient.
The hamburger started as a poor man's food. So, what do you make of the $100 truffle- and foie gras–topped versions that are now popping up on New York City menus?
I think they don't represent the true nature of the hamburger. A hamburger selling for $100 is like a Temptations record for $8,000. Hamburgers are cheap food; that's their essence. I feel the same way when I see a hamburger that is the size of a meatball or has had weird things added to it or is no longer served on an enriched bun. It simply ceases to be a hamburger.
What are your favorite American hamburger joints?
My favorite places nationwide include but are not be limited to Dirty Martin's Place in Austin; Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago; Seymore Burton in New York City; Hildebrandt's in Long Island, New York; Mike's Chili Parlor in Seattle; the Apple Pan in Los Angeles; and two great chains, Steak 'n Shake and Culver's.
Are those finds you've amassed over the years, or have you gone on a cross-country hamburger pilgrimage?
Everywhere I go is a hamburger pilgrimage.
Do you have any parting advice for fellow burger lovers?
I am totally committed to cooking on a flat-top griddle; that's how the hamburger is meant to be cooked. It was invented on a flat-top griddle, and it should only ever be cooked on a flat-top griddle. That is the perfect medium to preserve the burger's precious fats and fluids. When you cook a burger on a flat-top it is essentially confited in its own juices.