.The Legacy of America’s Classic Comfort Food: The Hamburger

The burger’s classic shape endures, even as it evolves

American comfort food, which invariably includes the soft warmth of mashed potatoes and the easy consumption of meatloaf, still holds firmly to its core values, embodied by the burger. Combining softness (the buns) and ease of chewing (ground beef), the burger is practically proof of the existence of, if not God, then at least some sort of divine plan.

Where did it all start, this passion for the hand-held meat-in-a-bun meal? Well, let’s start with the sausage. An ancient excuse for the application of mustard, sausage involves lots of ground-up animal protein packed into, possibly even confined by, a casing. Ground meat has been tamed. It stays put, thanks to the Old World sausage. Fast forward to either Germany or England, depending upon your choice of references. The need to speed up access to the ground meat plus bread, combined with time constraints created by the workday, meant that the meat had to escape confinement. It came out of its casing closet, and loosened up. But the ease of access was non negotiable.

Two slices of bread offered the first solution. You didn’t have to try to hold the meaty juices with your bare hands. The bread did that for you. It was inevitable that the bread would soon be custom shaped into the iconic shape of the ground meat interior. So the bread became circular. The oldest shape humans loved to create. The meal could be approached from any angle. Democratic, that’s what the first burgers were. They were a meal without fuss, just bread, meat and condiments that could be eaten quickly—during a lunch hour—and for cheap.

Still, the burger cried out for identity. The burger had to be one thing, not a composite of various animal parts, and in the beginning that meant beef. All beef. Ground beef, shaped into a roundish patty and served between two buns. But of course that wasn’t enough. More was needed. First mustard, then in rapid succession came pickle relish (or pickle slices). Then tomatoes, although probably not in the burger’s ancestral homeland of northern Europe. Then the onslaught of onions, lettuce, and finally the piéce de rèsistance—cheese. So perfect is the marriage of hot beef and melting cheese that the cheeseburger is, for many of us, definitive. A glorious, messy meal that requires two hands but no cutlery, the cheeseburger is the apotheosis of the burger’s identity.

In the beginning it was fast food. Indeed, many of us were weaned on Big Macs and its baroque cousin, the Whopper. To get a burger you could go to an old-school diner, much like Kirk’s Steakburgers, where families and couples have been going for decades. Or a drive-in. Or an actual white-tablecloth restaurant like Original Joe’s. More recently, in the decades since Burger King and McDonald’s put the burger on every lunch menu (not to mention the venerable ancestor White Castle), the burger has exploded. Soon there was Wendy’s (with the bacon!), In-n-Out (with special spread), Carl’s Jr (mmm, the thousand island dressing), and so on and so on. Yes, the day bacon entered the burger scene was tantamount to a religious conversion. What could be better than juicy ground beef made even juicier with crisp and salty bacon? The answer was, of course, more bacon.

And it was inevitable that burger would expand its identity to include the turkey burger, the bison burger, the lamb burger, the un-burger, the veggie burger—like the incredible ones that are wildly popular at Super Duper Burgers, which has South Bay outposts in San Jose and Los Gatos). And now it’s no holds barred, burgerwise, like the popular, Asian-themed Konjoe Burger Bar in Santa Clara, whose umami-rich “secret sauce” has legions of fans. But whatever one’s predilections, the right burger is out there.

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