Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History will be released on April 28, but Grub Street readers don’t have to wait so long. The book details the rise of the burger from a grim beef sausage to a cultural icon, and the following excerpt describes its ascendency in the new millennium, after years of critique from environmentalists and anti-establishment thinkers. But, more importantly, it presents a culinary justification for Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. College stoners, this term paper’s for you.
After two decades spent in the shadows of controversy and the blinding glare of profit, the hamburger emerged at the turn of new millennium ready to take back its rightful position at the top of the food chain. The Haute Burger Skirmish of 2003 will go down, no doubt, as one of those freakish episodes that occasionally enliven restaurant history: Daniel Boulud going hammer-and-tongs with the Old Homestead, in the middle of a recession, to sell the world’s most expensive hamburger. Boulud, arguably New York City’s most famous French chef, had in 2001 introduced the DB Burger, a twenty-nine-dollar foie gras and short rib–stuffed meatball, as a lark at his new Times Square restaurant, DB Bistro Moderne. Though intended more or less as a joke, the burger quickly became the restaurant’s signature dish—the culinary equivalent of bringing a sitcom character in for comic relief and having the show turn into a platform for his catchphrases. Boulud had to like the business the burger brought his sleekly brilliant restaurant, which was in the position of having to compete for Times Square tourist and theater traffic with places owned by quarterbacks. But he never saw it coming and shrugged off his success as good fortune. The ancient and primitive Old Homestead Steakhouse, though, saw a market. Equally challenged as a red-meat temple in an area populated by skinny fashionistas, the Old Homestead regarded Boulud’s success with envious eyes. So it came up with a mammoth twenty-ounce Kobe burger. The forty-one-dollar Kobe burger was even more unwieldy than the DB burger, but it brought in just as many customers. Boulud fought back with a fifty-dollar DB Royale, which featured three separate layers of shaved Périgord truffles. These dishes could be considered an anomaly but for the way they were immediately, and successfully, emulated by a dozen other New York restaurants. The “gourmet burger” phenomenon was duly noted in every one of the many centennial celebrations of the hamburger that appeared in 2004, commemorating the fictional invention of the hamburger at the Saint Louis World’s Fair. It seemed a perfect cap to the story and needed no exaggeration. The burger was still going strong, conquering new worlds. Manhattan grandees were paying fifty bucks for hamburgers at the city’s best restaurants; McDonald’s was reckoned among the largest corporate landowners in Russia. Hipsters in Red Hook, Brooklyn, flocked to a stylized burger restaurant, Schnack, which featured an earring-wearing burger man as its mascot.
It was at the movies, however, that the hamburger showed its symbolic power most forcefully. In 2003, Raising Victor Vargas, a much-lauded film about the lives of contemporary Dominican tenement dwellers on New York’s Lower East Side, was released. The film starred real-life Loisaidas and was praised for its realism. Its climax involved the young hero inviting his new girlfriend to the family’s apartment for a hamburger dinner. Director Peter Sollett remembers, “When we were doing press for the movie, in Paris, and at Cannes, a journalist asked if we were trying to make a point about the way immigrants are stripped of their culture when they come to the United States, by the fact that they were eating hamburgers and not Dominican food. And the answer is, absolutely not. In Victor’s real life family, all the kids’ favorite food are hamburgers.” In 2004, in time for the hamburger’s centennial, the documentary Hamburger America was released, celebrating the hamburger. Filmmaker George Motz limited himself to featuring restaurants that had been serving primarily hamburgers for forty years or more and that reflected unique local traditions. Presented without voiceover narration, the film ranges from Memphis to New Mexico to Chicago, lovingly recording local burger ways as an expression of America. And in a coincidence of special poignancy, a teen comedy was released the same year. In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, two Asian-American college students get stoned and encounter a gamut of white stereotypes on their pilgrimage to White Castle. Film critic A. O. Scott, in the New York Times, wrote that the two “could be poster children for early 21st-century American diversity… except that the very word would totally kill their buzz.” There was some symmetry to this. It was, after all, White Castle that created the hamburger from the fabric of immigrant experience and helped make it an American icon; fitting, then, that its creation should come around again and welcome another group of immigrants into the fold. America was infinite, absorptive, an idea that transcended physical shape and borders. The hamburger, its most universal symbol, could be no less immortal.