‘This is the final word on the mighty burger’ or so Phaidon’s press release would have us believe of David Michaels’ The World is Your Burger: A Cultural History. Ten years in the making, it’s certainly an impressive and comprehensive look at the subject of the world’s favourite fast food, a food that 40 billion of us buy annually in the US alone.
Opening with a timeline stretching back to the 1st century and Roman food, Michaels charts the origins and development of the burger, from spiced ground mince to an item that billions are spent on today. His light, engaging and well researched prose unveils the history of the patty and bun – from its Germanic and Eastern European origins to its journey across the Atlantic with the tired, poor, and huddled masses that emigrated to New York in pursuit of the American Dream.
But it wasn’t until White Castle first opened in 1921, with its square patty topped with onions and a pickle slice, served between two bun halves, that the modern fast food burger was invented. Michaels has profiled the leading burger chains that pioneered the burger’s popularity as fast food, from the smaller American drive-in diner chains to Jack in the Box, Sonic and Wendy’s. These ‘origin’ chains now represent a very specific type of burger; make them quick, cheap and to a formula all backed up with large industrial supply chains. The result is that these burgers, so central to American popular culture and from chains that have taken over the world, all look the same. This jumps out from the images in the book’s ‘Gallery’: thin grey patties with tasteless tomato, lettuce, and rubber cheese all housed in an industrially produced flaccid bun.
If that was the story of the burger this book wouldn’t exist and burger sales would be dropping. But the burger is a cultural icon and an important part of many childhoods, so has been rescued by a new generation of chefs and burger fanatics. The Gourmet Burger is here and here to stay and has been reinvented across the globe. This development started, somewhat amazingly, with The Hard Rock Café in 1971 when it first opened in London. This new breed of burger joints has also been profiled, covering Mos Burgers of Japan, Joe Allen in London, Tommi’s Burger Joint of Reykjavick and ones of more recent fame: Five Guys, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron, Shake Shack, Umami Burger and Honest Burger. A surprisingly large number of these new joints were founded in London. What all these burger joints have in common is the drive and determination of their founders to create a perfect burger that is at once simultaneously nostalgic and creative. They have restored the burger to being more than just the takeaway fast food that it had become; it’s a restaurant food once again.
Combined, the profiles make for the best guide to different places to buy and eat burgers around the world that there is, and would have made a superb addition to the Phaidon ‘Where…’ series. But Michaels comes from a conceptual design background and has filled his book with over 205 posters and photos (many published for the very first time) that speak to the cultural position of the burger through the 20th century and on.
McDonalds and Burger King may be giant corporations but ones that for better or for worse have played a role in shaping our lives. They can be the great equaliser – a burger, a taste, a brand we all know and have some connection with (often notions of childhood comfort). This has meant politicians can exploit them for electoral gain, be it Margret Thatcher holding, somewhat disapprovingly, a Big Mac for the surrounding crowd of photographers and journalists, or JFK appearing accessible and glamorous sitting on the back bonnet of an open top car surrounded by crowds in front of the Golden Arches. These images sit alongside those of 1960s families munching on burgers, Helen Mirren in a ball gown with her Oscar and mouth wrapped around an In-N-Out, and Angela Lansbury in full medieval queen costume eating a burger in the lunch break while filming The Court Jester in 1955.
Michaels lays bare the role that burgers have played in popular culture, from the pop-art of Warhol to the runway of Moschino. That such an iconic item should cross boundaries into other mediums (including films and Japanese Manga) is unsurprising given its capitalist, commercial and materialist dominance. The book is almost a piece of pop-art in itself, from the layout and design work to the typeface, to say nothing of the images of old posters, and of burgers and the stores that sell them, all of which are works of art in themselves.
The burger’s commercial prowess brings with it great social power. It can be a force for political good, like Burger King’s 2014 Proud Whopper in support of LGBT rights, or of movie promotion, something that Burger King pioneered with Star Wars in 1977. To raise funds for an art project, in 2004 Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group set up Shake Shack as a temporary hot dog stand opposite one of his fine dining restaurants on Madison Square Park. Now it has stores all over the world and is a listed business but, instead of setting up supply systems like the large low cost chains, it works with high-end producers around the world that are local to each store.
From a more practical point of view, Michaels includes recipes for some of the best signature gourmet burgers, including the Spicy Beef Short Rib Bao Burger. Additionally, there is a stylish guide and tasting notes on how we taste a burger and how to select the perfect elements of a burger, from the meat to the bun to the dressings and condiments. Peppered with quotes, the book also contains interviews with top chefs, trivia and the 10 commandments of burgers.
Having given the last decade of his life to creating this bible and ode to his favourite food, David Michaels has created a book that is a sheer joy to read and to look at. The World is Your Burger gets as close as is possible to a final word on a subject: it’s a comprehensive, definitive and visually delightful guide to the patty and its bun.
By David Michaels
Published By Phaidon