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Hamburger History

A recipe from 1763 cements the hamburger's place in American culture

smithsonian.com
Delicious miniburgers, courtesy of Flickr user chotda

Until I became a food blogger, I never noticed how many people write books dedicated to a single item of food or drink. New releases in the past year have focused on the history of the bagel, the doughnut, the potato, pizza, milk, orange juice, and chocolate, to name just a few. (Note to self: Look in fridge for book idea.)

So when a copy of Josh Ozersky's The Hamburger arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I admit, I didn't exactly rush to read it. I finally dragged it out in the gym, of all places, hoping to distract myself from the tedium of the exercise bike. (Note to self: Fellow gym-goers glare at books with tantalizing food photos on cover. Remove dust jacket next time.)

Considering that I haven't eaten a non-vegetarian hamburger in about 15 years, I found this book surprisingly interesting. It's really a cultural history of America in the 20th century as much as it is a book about what Ozersky effusively describes as "sizzling discs of goodness," and a "robust, succulent spheroid," and, I'm not kidding here, "as artfully self-contained as a Homeric hexameter." (Note to self: "Spheroid" is not an appetizing word.)

More seriously, he calls hamburgers "the most mobile, satisfying, and efficient sandwich ever devised," and eventually, "the most powerful food object in the industrialized world."

He writes about White Castle, McDonald's, the birth of franchises, brand identities and standardized food production, and how these things tied into Americans' ideas about themselves.

In honor of Memorial Day weekend, when many Americans fire up the backyard grill, here's a VERY alternative hamburger recipe which Ozersky dug up in a 1763 edition of The Art of Cookery, Plain and Simple (actually, it's a recipe for "Hamburg sausage," which he calls a "proto-hamburger ancestor"):
Take a pound of Beef, mince it very small, with half a Pound of the best Suet; then mix three-quarters of a Pound of Suet cut in large Pieces; then Season it with Pepper, Cloves, Nutmeg, a great Quantity of Garlic cut small, some white Wine Vinegar, some Bay Salt, a Glass of red wine, and one of Rum; mix all these very well together, then take the largest Gut you can find, stuff it very tight; then hang it up a Chimney, and smoke it with Saw-Dust for a Week or ten Days; hang them in the Air, till they are dry, and they will keep a Year. They are very good boiled in Peas Porridge, and roasted with toasted Bread under it, or in an Amlet.*
Mmm...hungry yet? I think I'll skip the suet and stick with quinoa or veggie burgers, thanks.

*Not sure what this word means, maybe an alternate spelling of omelette?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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