The burger is of Germanic origin: Hamburg. Hannah Glasse’s 1758 recipe for ‘Hamburgh Sausage’, served with bread beneath it is, perhaps, its genesis. By 1847 the Hamburg America Line served Hamburg steak, the burgers cooked to order on the gasoline range of the sandwich cart. The meal was humble and good value (freshly cooked meat aboard a train today is reserved for a few specialized and luxurious excursions into re-living railway nostalgia). Yet, one could argue that the Hamburger never quite took off till the personal and bespoke attitudes of the 19th century provoked a phobic response in the burger business.
In the post-modern American époque, the Reagan period, when rapid and aggressive expansion, globalization and large-network efficiency were the business foci de rigueur, the burger got pimped. The humble, Germanic émigré, transformed into the orphaned dish of multiple component parts we understand as the modern burger; in all its dried, limp and corn-syrupy fatigue. The burger became its own razzle-dazzled pimp: garishly dressed in artificial Sesame Street hues – it’s prospect always a fleeting memory, a shadow of good sustenance, in comparison to its dissatisfying and cruelly anti-climatic let-down of a gastronomic experience. The burger became removed from its earnest simplicity and, via reconstitution under the forces of globalization, became a vivid simulacrum, like it’s own hyper-real advert: vibrant visuals with little taste.
The vertiginous compound meal, the composite dish of minced beef sandwiched between pre-processed doughy buns with distractions of cheesy unctuousness, swinesque crispiness, pickled crunch sourness or dent-a-kill sugary condiments, mustard, ‘tomato’, relish, onion or occult special sauce, never realized its potential till corporations spread it too thinly. Burger chain burgers, the frantic, agitated, and stress-frazzled piles of de-personalized flesh ’n’ polystyrene melancholy inevitably found their moribund nadir re-territorialized to Barlesque hipster-chic haute-novelty.
A burger is the pre-primed ideal of post-Fordist capitalism – one could say it is meta-fordist. The burger is a nexus of Toyotan Just-In-Time manufacturing. Each component of the towering feats is a complex exercise in Fordist technique. The bread-buns, be they bleached clouds of corpo-uniformity or artisanal sepia-to-saffron butter-puffs of brioche sweetness, need a factory’s worth of preparation. The carb-packaging requires multiple levels of process, effort, transport and refinement. The old phrase of ‘making bread’: bread making, especially making bread big time – baking – was always a hard graft, complex, involved and hierarchical. Yet, such things are merely the sandwiching of the main attraction. Buns are not even condiment, distraction or side. They are but buns, brackets of the main attraction – the begrudged practical necessity of their presence is all that keeps them at the sides of the stage.
The meat is the burger-real. It reveals the extravagant negation of economy that euro-cuisine consistently re-fetishizes. Aged, hung, fresh, local, rare… these are the shibboleths of anti-capitalist withdrawal and cultural conservatism. The meat must be somehow unique, have provenance, a post-mortem luxury of hanging and aging akin to fine wines and whiskies, whilst all along, and despite such pernickety predilections, be presented in a minced-up, ground-down, patty-mushed and heat-seared discus form. The burger itself, the patty, is a queer thing. It fails, glams up, indulges and negates itself. It is neither cut not product – it is burger, at once indistinguishable from its primary butchered familiarity yet uncannily other. The burger is too cultured, too artificial to be mistaken for steak. It is an impossible compound, it is multiple cuts, multiple parts, advanced meat recovery provides protein materials beyond the quaint simplicity of mere butchery. Machinic efficiencies reclaim the flesh of bovine skeletons.
For the squeamish pescatarian or noble vegan the burger is an uncanny valley of gastrohorror. The burger doesn’t present the distinctly animal appearance of unprocessed meat. There are not joints, bones, fat or form. The musculature of its original corporeal origins erased, in its place stands vertiginous possibilities of flesh. The burger is the unthinkable, the lamella, of capitalism’s machinic impersonality. The ground meat no doubt polygenic, of multiple animals, parts and, in some occasions, species – all harvested in myriad mysterious ways. The burger harbours the horror of sci-fi: unrecognizability – the deeply horrifying prospect of epistemological ambiguity overtakes the sheer explicitness of gore.
The burger patty, contra-steak, is stoically post-human. Its weirdly optimized production and form has a futural streak – a future steak. Normal steak is too beastly, too animal, too fibrously carnivorous in bite to be comparable; our soft incisors are too weak for real meat. The steak reeks of antiquated ways – it seems overly mammalian, crude and base. The burger is speed, efficiency and optimization; it is the Jetsons, the mystery of science, engineering, technology and sly corporate finesse. Steak is Fred Flintstone, it is the self-winding wrist-watch, the map, the phone-call, the human-controlled automobile, the real fire: its pleasure is precisely the sentimentally for yesteryear – an indulgence retrospection and nostalgia: the pantomime rehearsal of bygone ways, the dignities of inefficiency.
The patty, the pixelated bovine avatar, the meta-Fordist-Frankenstein nexus of vertiginous processes and networks, is all the more satisfying for its synthetic optimization: pre-ground, pre-mixed, curated, arranged by an unseen Svengali-systems. Re-made and re-modeled, seasoned and pre-masticated protein presented with maximum sear-surface for carcinogen charred smokiness and blood-oozing rareness. Its profile of blackened exterior and pinkish soft interior betray the paradoxical brief of the future-steak. Its beef must ham it up (hamburger not beefburger) in the new wave of gourmand burgers. The hamming-beef must be Isserley close to human – replete with undertones class stratification and eugenics. Our cows must have come from good stock, breeding, a heritage of being grass fed and free range. Our mooing-ideal must have a level of luxuriant idle happiness: an idyllic pastural bovine-bohemianism of somnambulant grazing around, well, Hereford, ideally. Before the diner’s imaginary lacuna of the slaughter one imagines a Cider With Rosie tranquility, chirping hedgerows, long hazy summers of late evening violets and a quieter, more relaxed way of life in those halcyon years between the wars… Such fictioning is the Menu’s Con – the MC that, before the burger’s arrival, tells a story at once unimaginable and resolutely incredible. A story of heritage, origin and provenance that is irrefutably incongruous with the horror of machinic consistency that lurks between the buns.
One should be cautious of the nostalgic turn that pervades cuisine. The meat atrocities of corporate efficiency are let downs, they are cons, but future-steaks are not necessarily doomed to forever being uncanny impostors. The next big thing is often called a ‘young pretender’ – before the game changes, before a paradigm shift. The supposed superiority of small-scale, localism, heritage and desirable inefficiencies could be challenged by the cool efficiency of large networks: the burger, the nexus of esoteric processes and occult saucery, should stop dressing itself in vintage and be the unashamed future-steak it is. Highly automated gastronomic luxuries, that exceed the possibilities of local and small scale cuisine – as unthinkable as overseeing one’s steak cooking on a train – are just around the corner.