I Want a Burger!

by Jun Yu Lin

A slice of cheese, a beef patty, two pieces of bun, and voila! A good old American cheeseburger is born. The history of the cheeseburger dates back to the 1920s when a young man decided to put a slice of cheese on a hamburger to cover some burned meat (Elks). Fast forward to the present day: whether it’s the gourmet burger sprinkled with gold dust, or the traditional burger with sizzling bacon and onions on top, the once commonplace menu item has transcended its former self.  The story of the cheeseburger is not just about delicious ingredients; instead, the evolution of the cheeseburger reflects the society that is carried within.

The invention of the cheeseburger can actually be tied to a place: Los Angeles, and the evolution of the cheeseburger documents the changes their and in America itself. As the story goes, in 1927 a young chef named Lionel Sternberger created the cheeseburger (Elks) through something of a mistake. Since then, the cheeseburger has expanded its sphere of influence not only in Los Angeles, but also on the global stage, and has branched out into two categories, traditional and gourmet.

The dominant player in the traditional branch is, of course, McDonald’s. McDonald’s has made few alterations to the cheeseburger, but it has completely revolutionized the preparation and serving process of cheeseburgers in order to cater to the ever-increasing pace of American life.  Los Angeles, one of the top ten fastest-paced cities in the United States (Wiseman), shows the pace quite dramatically. There are more than 25 McDonald’s within a three mile radius in Los Angeles (McDonald’s). The availability of cheeseburgers at every corner of the city is a response to the faster-paced society that has been taking shape over the past decades. McDonald’s altered the production speed and portability of the cheeseburger to suit the pace of an accelerating America, and thus turned the cheeseburger into a mass producible product, a fast-food. According to facts revealed in The Economist, an average American consumed three burgers each week by the 1990s. To date, cheeseburgers still dominate McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food chain, with a stardom built on sychronization.

But cheeseburgers have also been experiencing significant success in the traditional restaurant setting, because these restaurants do what McDonald’s does not: they depart from the original formula. Boneyard Bistro, a restaurant in LA, puts a spin on the basic style by using “Kobe beef and chili”. At Beverly Wilshire, the cheeseburgers are made with “prime sirloin, foie gras mousse and sauteed wild mushrooms” (Beverly Wilshire Menu). Unsurprisingly, a much bigger bill also follows. The value of a cheeseburger as an entity is considerably augmented by the departure from the traditional formula. Interestingly, though these uncommon burgers owe their popularity to their departure from the norm, their success story is deeply rooted in the history of the cheeseburger, which is, in itself, a variation of a hamburger, a break from tradition. The first hamburger dates back to the 11th century Germany (Brandon);  that slice of cheese in 1927 was the determining factor that turned it into a 20th century American icon.

Cheeseburgers may have carried the cheap, fast food label for the past few decades, but in today’s world, that is no longer the whole truth. In this case, rather than calling it evolution, the term reflective adaptation is more appropriate. In Los Angeles, the rumored birthplace of the cheeseburger, there are dozens of gourmet restaurants, with the most expensive burgers at Lunch Lux going for a whopping $100 each. The ingredients for this burger include “grass-fed Wagyu beef, Grade-A Hudson Valley foie gras, onion marmalade…[and] Italian white truffles” (Lunch Lux Menu). Can everyone afford a $100 burger made with “grass-fed Wagyu beef”? The answer is a definite “no.” So what is the justification for an extravagant meal like this?  The only suitable explanation for its existence is the adequate demand from a segment of LA’s population: the wealthy. Different people have different degrees of desire for quality, and each person also has a specific amount of resources to support that desire.

In the world of cheeseburgers, there is also a class system, a fully structured hierarchy that mirrors the human society, with each level catering to a specific financial background in the human population. It is with this understanding that restaurant owners choose which tier of burger they will produce in order to target a specific class of people. A single cheeseburger, though insignificant on its own, encompasses the long existing class system when examined at a larger scale.  The cheeseburger embodies many of the dynamics of class separation.

The cheeseburger is an American icon that has grown and changed along with LA and the rest of the country. All objects have their own histories.  A cheeseburger isn’t a bunch of meaningless calories, for each of those calories represents a taste, a texture, ingredients, ideas, a history, and even provides a mirror. Perhaps now is good time for a cheeseburger, except that this time, you’ll likely think about exactly what you are having.

Works Cited

“As Hamburgers Go, So Goes America?” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. 21 Aug. 1997. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

Brandon, Aprill. America’s Love Affair with Cheeseburgers. VictoriaAdvocate, 28 July.     2010. Web. October 16, 2012.

Boneyard Bistro. Boneyard Bistro Menu. Los Angeles: Boneyard Bistro, 2012. Web.

Beverly Wilshire. Beverly Wilshire Menu. Los Angeles: Beverly Wilshire, 2012. Web

Elliott, Farley. The 10 Best Burgers in Los Angeles. Rustic Canyon, 28 February. 2011.     Web. October 16, 2012.

Elks, Sonia. “Diner Says it’s the Home of Cheeseburger.” Metro 18 January 2012 National Edition. Web.

Hogue , John S. “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. The American Quarterly: Vol 63,201-214.

The Johns Hopkins University Press. Web.

Lunch Lux. Lunch Lux Menu. Los Angeles: Lunch Lux, 2012. Web.

Restaurant Location. McDonald’s, 2011. Web. October 16, 2012.

Wiseman, Richard. Quirkology. Pace of life. Web. October 16, 2012.