Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Hamburger vs. The Ideal of Demanding Food

If there is a single dish that embodies America, it is surely the hamburger. As such, unlike the national foods of most countries, it is frequently controversial and openly vilified on nutritional, ideological and aesthetic grounds. While it is often identified, especially among the formerly downtrodden, with youth and fun and freedom, or at least 20th-century illusions of those things, it also functions as a symbol of corporatism, mass production, blandness, unsophistication and the general destruction of and disconnection from the deeper and more subtle relationship which humans have to food and the earth itself in traditional culinary cultures. The essential banality of the hamburger is such that people raised in serious food cultures either cannot make, or cannot bring themselves to make, this dish as it is generally made in the United States. It is virtually impossible to find an acceptable imitation American hamburger anywhere in Europe unless it is at an American-owned establishment. For most Europeans anyway, to grill one straight from the recipe in Fonzie's All-American cookbook is to be neither adventurous nor to seek a deeper understanding of and appreciation for American culture, as people often consider themselves to be doing when trying a foreign cusine, but to violate deeply held and treasured beliefs about the proper techniques, purposes, relationships, flavors, etc, involved in the preparation of various foods. Those who are most highly sensitive about the place of food in their self-identification, and are most disturbed about how little serious consideration of it occupies in that of barbaric Americanized types, will not even acknowledge the hamburger as legitimate human cuisine, but rank it on the level of something more appropriate for animals.

Though I cannot pinpoint the moment exactly (and it was long afterwards--40-50 years after it first appeared in Europe--before the concept began to gain wide creditably in America), I believe that the idea that food should be demanding, or at least should not be undemanding, began to arise among certain of the more sophisticated classes of people around the time that the hamburger and its equally tasteless and unsubtle relations, the hot dog, the donut, Coca-Cola, ketchup, Oreos, etc burst upon the world scene in a big way in the 1920s. Before that time gourmets and other people who were inclined to think a lot about food tended to make demands on it, (namely that it be good, or for the less fanatical at least not be the sort of wretched fare associated with the dregs of society), rather than expect the food to make demands on them. But whereas throughout most of history people who had to eat terrible food generally would have recognized and happily eaten something better if they could have gotten their hands on it, America's emerging and, to some, terrifying masses of hamburger chompers had a much wider range of culinary possibilities, and not only willingly ate garbage, but began to export it aggressively all over the world. These modern Americans, these mass democratic men, when presented with superior food that was offered them for the taking, as they did with superior art and superior choices in clothing, on the whole responded as if the superior choices were impositions upon their enjoyment of life rather than the tenfold enhancements of it they ought to have been, in a word, as if they were demanding. This blatant rejection of quality split the human race into 2 parts in a way and on a scale that it had never been split before, and, the vulgar both so far outnumbering the sophisticated and having more freedom to impose vulgarity throughout the culture than had ever existed previously, sophisticates began to consider that the civilization that they had built and upheld must in as great a danger of collapsing as it had ever had been.

Americans themselves however tended to remain loyal to and even proud of their hamburgers and starch well into the 1970s. Much of this, doubtless, was the bliss of ignorance. Many older people who grew up in New Hampshire and Vermont tell me that they had never seen or heard of such things as pizza or edible yogurt before 1960, and I remember when my 1st grade school lunch menu offered tacos one Wednesday, my mother's having no idea what they were (this was in 1976-77). Celebrities ate the same heavy fare as the rest of the populace. Marlon Brando wowed one reporter at a diner in the 60s by putting away "two steaks, potatoes, two apple pies a la mode, and a quart of milk (?)." The 1962 Betty Crocker New Picture Cookbook, which according to my wife Sabrina is the greatest American cookbook of all time (and she is not alone. Copies on Amazon start at around $75 and have rave reviews. I don't know why they don't reprint it) includes a section on the favorite meals of numerous notable people, and the same pattern is revealed. Former President Eisenhower shared similar tastes with Brando: "Broiled Sirloin Steak, Baked Potatoes, Green Beans, Green Salad with French Dressing, Apple Pie with Cheese, and Coffee." Nobel Prize recipient Ralph Bunche, though a little more sophisticated, still went with Crabmeat in Tomato Halves (or Green Turtle Soup in cold weather), Prime Ribs of Beef, Stuffed Baked Potatoes, String Beans (maybe I should eat more string beans) Tossed Salad, Rolls and Butter Balls, Strawberries and Vanilla Ice Cream Scoops, and Demitasse (this a nice touch). "Glamorous opera star" Helen Traubel couldn't up come with anything more intimidating than "Chicken en Casserole, Mixed Green Salad, Hard Crusted Rolls, and Persian Melon filled with Raspberries, Cut-up Pineapple, and Blueberries." Little Caroline Kennedy's White House birthday party saw Roast Chicken, Mashed Potatoes (with clown faces) and Green Peas on the Menu, a modest repast compared to what the papers tell us our best children are eating nowadays. Jimmy Durante, whom I would not have expected to eat healthily, favored Shrimp Cocktail (yes!), Tossed Salad with Umbriago Dressing, Broiled Steak, Baked Potato with Sour Cream and Chives, Asparagus or Chopped Spinach. These are solid, hearty meals fit for a hearty people, and they are especially suited to the climate and traditions of the colder Northern states (which used to be populated by hearty people), which is doubtless why this manner of eating evolved as it did, for this is how and why culinary tradition has evolved in every country and every region.

But to go back to the hamburger: it is my theory that the modern form of food snobbery, which I really find distasteful and among the more trivial barriers that people have erected between themselves and others, arose as the result of mass displacement from traditional customs and habits on too many fronts for people to absorb all at once, and thus ever unsure of their footing in the new order of the world, have to stake out some patch of cultural turf on which to stand fastly and make a fetish of. As I have written before, I do enjoy, or rather did enjoy before I had children, going to certain gallery events or museum cafes and eating the crisp, airy food and eavesdropping on the conversations of the smart set on occasion, and I also agree that the general standard of cookery and diet among the American masses, including, about half the time, myself, is an absolute disgrace, and is not contributing to the production of either a physically strong or intelligent people. That said, I think the situation were better addressed by the more exalted part of the eating public in a graver and less scolding and sneering, as well as a more practical manner. I don't like poor and lazy people either, and I have even been both of those things at various times, but our society enables people at its lower levels to eat badly very easily. People will want to cast the argument in terms of economic theory, and say that if people are willing to pay a certain price for junk, one has no right to prevent them; there is also the argument, which I tend to agree with, that imposing some kind of health or quality standard on food will bring out fascistic tendencies in Americans appointed to set these standards. The cafeteria where I work imposed a healthy new menu a few years back, supposedly to fight soaring health insurance costs, and things like butter and meatballs disappeared from the premises and chickpeas began to be served as the main dish every Tuesday (which basically means that I now end up stopping at Wendy's drive-through on my way home from work every Tuesday to prevent myself from passing out from hunger). I wouldn't wish to impose absolute judgements of the virtues of kinds of foods, staple foods especially, but to cut down on the ubiquity of utter garbage. In France (I know, I know, but bear with me) or Italy, if you see a beggar sitting on some steps eating a crust of bread and a jug of wine, even if they are the worst brands available they are still generally way better than what a person in similar circumstances would be having in the United States because the floor of what is deemed acceptable for human consumption, the very bottom of the market, is much higher than it is in the United States. Unfortunately they seem to be drifting our way more than vice versa. Economics trumps all, I suppose.
I wanted a picture of a cute girl eating a hamburger but when I searched for "cute-girl-hamburger", I got ten pictures of the girl from the movie Juno (who is plenty cute to me of course, don't get me wrong, but the picture wasn't quite what I had in mind) talking on a hamburger telephone. This guy was #17, which if nothing else demonstrates the limitations of internet search engines. I tried other searches: "malt shop-girl-hamburger"; "old-movie-girl-eating-hamburger"; "pretty-girl-diner-hamburger"; "Gigdet-eating-hamburger"; but none of them turned up anything better.

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