The Complex Fate of the American Hamburger How a particular food has become central to the debate of what it means to be an American.

Illustration by Maddy Cushman

For Andreea De La Torre, memories of tasting an American hamburger for the first time are entwined with her family’s story of fleeing Romania during the violent civil unrest of the 1989 Revolution.

“I was born in Timisoara, Romania, the same city where the first gunshot was fired that started the revolution,” De La Torre wrote by email. “My family was able to ‘escape’ months before. First it was my dad, my maternal grandmother, and my uncle, then it was my maternal grandfather, and, lastly, it was going to be my mom, my sister and me. The night that we were supposed to leave, the army came and took my mom and left my sister and me alone in the apartment. After two days alone, my sister went to a neighbor to ask for food.”

The neighbor, unable to care for the two young girls, turned Andreea and her older sister over to the police, who in turn tried to find someone to take care of the girls. At this time in Romania, all the food was controlled by the state. To get any of it required waking up at 4 a.m. to queue and receive, if you were lucky, a loaf of bread and a jug of milk.

“I remember that some days all that we ate was warm bread with lard or butter with Vegeta seasoning,” De La Torre recalled.

When the girls’ paternal grandmother was notified of their circumstances, she said she was unable to care for the girls, so the police took the sisters to a Romanian orphanage.

The girls’ long hair was shaved off. They shared a bed together. There were no toys or hugs; only cold showers and long days of waiting.

She remembers sitting on her orphanage bed, looking out the window with her sister, hoping to catch a glimpse of their missing mother. Despite the girls’ best efforts to will their mother’s return, she never materialized at the orphanage.

The hamburger was Andreea De La Torre’s first taste of America. A bite so complicated and full of what the United States has to offer: a children’s meal which promises that ever-American goal of happiness …

De La Torre, then only 6 years old, had no idea what would come next, what those days spent looking out the window would yield. She did not yet imagine her escape from Romania would find her in the Sonoran Desert with a fast-food hamburger, wondering how exactly to eat this new food, and where it was she and her family now lived.

The hamburger was her first taste of America. A bite so complicated and full of what the United States has to offer: a children’s meal which promises that ever-American goal of happiness, meat for all and not just the wealthy, and the portable ingenuity of placing an all-beef patty between two buns, a phenomenon that was invented somewhere in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Hamburg, Germany’s claims be damned.


Cheeseburgers in paradise

Like most important culinary feats, the hamburger’s origin story is hotly contested and most likely an example of simultaneous invention. Just as both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s advanced the theory of evolution or as Marie Sklodowska Curie and Gerhart Carl Schmidt understood thorium radioactivity at the same time, the American burger may have existed in several different places at once before the dawn of the 20th century.

Texas Monthly has one of the more interesting takes on whether a Texan by the name of Fletcher Davis, by way of Webster Groves, Missouri, invented the hamburger and then served it up to 1904 World’s Fair-goers in St. Louis. The problem, however, with this claim is that the Library of Congress reports that Louis Lassen, a Danish immigrant who settled in New Haven, Connecticut and founded Louis’ Lunch, served America’s first hamburger in 1900, four years prior to Davis. Other claimants include Seymour, Wisconsin’s Charlie Nagreen who sold a squashed meatball between two slices of bread at the Seymour Fair in 1885, among others.

Yet, the late Josh Ozersky, author of The Hamburger: A History, reported that the person who actually invented hamburgers as we know them today, is Walter Anderson, a short-order cook from Wichita, Kansas. Anderson, according to Ozersky’s research, “was the first to cook standardized, flat ground-beef patties on a custom griddle and to serve them on identical white buns. The claim is supported both by nearly contemporaneous newspaper accounts and by the fact that Anderson, with his partner, E.J. ‘Billy’ Ingram, founded in 1921 a restaurant called White Castle, which still makes a nearly identical sandwich today.”

When we engage in the meat-is-bad-for-the-environment argument, who is being asked to sacrifice first? The person sitting at the downscale lunch counter with her $5 hamburger or the elected official receiving kickbacks from the oil and gas industry?

Ozersky thinks it is Anderson, not Lassen nor Davis, Nagreen, or others, who deserves the ultimate billing as the hamburger’s godfather. White Castle, Ozersky argued, is America’s first fast-food business centered on flipping burgers. And it is Anderson and Ingram who catapulted the hamburger to worldwide recognition as one of America’s national meals.

The issue these days, however, is not so much who invented the hamburger as what eating meat, especially red meat, is doing to our health and the environment. Agriculture is cited as one of the primary producers of 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, with methane emissions from cattle as one of the biggest contributors. Not to mention the land, water, and grain involved in raising livestock.

“I think there were parts of the Green New Deal that frightened big corporate agriculture to death,” wrote Jon Stubblefield, proprietor of Stubblefield Farms, a boutique cattle operation located in Odessa, a small town off Interstate 70 located 40 miles east of Kansas City, Missouri. “But I think there are HUGE parts of modern agriculture that really NEED to change. Because it isn’t eco-friendly and it isn’t sustainable.”

Before the Green New Deal was summarily dismissed, U.S. Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez always underscored that she was not interested in taking away anyone’s hamburgers. Yet, climate activists and environmental researchers still make no capitulations that eating less meat would better serve the planet and leaner nations.

“Part of reducing meat and animal-based food consumption in the west is opening up planetary space for people who consume very little [meat] to be able to consume more,” Richard Waite told Forbes Magazine in January of this year.

And yet, one of the primary reasons the “not my beef!” argument gained such traction with those who opposed the Green New Deal is that sustainability policies often disproportionately fall on the backs of people who are working-class or poor, especially in developing nations.

“There is always self-interest and selectivity in sustainable consumption,” wrote Dr. Louise O. Fresco in Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat. “Eating less meat may be a reasonably acceptable option among the rich Western middle classes, but so is a great amount of driving and flying.”

In other words, when we engage in the meat-is-bad-for-the-environment argument, who is being asked to sacrifice first? The person sitting at the downscale lunch counter with her $5 hamburger or the elected official receiving kickbacks from the oil and gas industry? And who has the most power in making the American food system more just and sustainable, for both the people eating and the animals many Americans still depend upon as a food source?


The fatted calf

Part of the reason Jon Stubblefield decided to raise a small herd of grass-fed cattle, “30 mommas and a bull,” just outside of Kansas City, was he knew playing guitar and writing songs for a living were not going to pay the bills.

That, and Stubblefield had met a lot of people who had no idea what actually happened on a small farm—only the horror stories of industrialized beef, like the exceptional essay Michael Pollan published in The New York Times Magazine 17 years ago, a 20th-century update on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, only this time following the birth of a calf Pollan only refers to as “No. 534” to its eventual slaughter.

“When I was living in the city pursuing [music],” wrote Stubblefield, a childhood friend who used to Army-crawl up my gravel driveway and bob for apples with me from a repurposed cattle tank at Halloween, “I met my first real vegans, vegetarians, and animal-rights folks. They were all really quick to point out all the ugliness in the beef industry. But the way they described it wasn’t anything like what I’d grown up with.”

Stubblefield figured he was on to something—that he could produce more sustainable, higher quality beef than the big meat processors. So, he began the earnest work of raising a small herd in the ways he had observed as a child—open pastures; healthy cows nursing their young; plenty of access to grass, hay, spent grain, and freshwater; no feedlots or dependence on antibiotics or cows standing in their own filth; and a respect for the land both he and his cows lived on.

Since Jon began Stubblefield Farms 11 years ago, he now posts regular updates on social media about his life on the farm. His most recent post announced the birth of an all-black calf who arrived in mid-April:


“Spring Irish Dexter calf number two … Queenie. Born Saturday.

Not sure if she’s named after a Robert Johnson or Chuck Berry song. Or after Grandpa Cash’s border collie …”


Jon’s defiance of taboo, of naming the creature that he or someone else will one day eat, is both refreshing and perhaps terrifying to some. Unlike Pollan, Stubblefield christens his calves with names and knows their fate, too.

“Naming something forces you to empathize with it, to relate to it, to personalize it,” writes Laura Jean Schneider in her essay, “Should We Name the Animals We Eat?” “If it’s going into my body, I want to know the sacrifices that must happen in order for that to occur.”

And that idea, of knowing and respecting the cost of the sacrifice is perhaps how we have arrived at this juncture, where eating meat, especially beef, can often signify not only a dietary choice but also an ethical decision and moral value. A decision some say is cruel and ruining the environment and others say does not have to be that way. A decision that is so much more nuanced and personal than “meat is murder” and “it’s what’s for dinner™.”

Which leads us to America’s humble hamburger and how an all-beef patty between two buns has suddenly caused a political ruckus. From January’s #whitehousedinners memes to February’s unveiling of the Green New Deal (GND) to March’s Senatorial smackdown of the proposed resolution, hamburgers are having a cultural moment. A moment where the burger still serves as a stalwart symbol of American cuisine, a divisive dog whistle for American politicians, and, maybe just maybe, a common ground on which to discuss how to solve a problem as big and complex as global warming.

The idea of knowing and respecting the cost of an animal’s sacrifice is perhaps how we have arrived at this juncture, where eating meat, especially beef, can often signify not only a dietary choice but also an ethical decision and moral value.

In fact, the #whitehousedinners hashtag that went viral on January 15, 2019, was perhaps one of the weirder moments in the Trump presidency. While the nation wondered when the government shutdown would end, financially-strapped federal furloughed workers stood in food-bank lines or waited in yet another line to receive a free pulled pork sandwich at an Alexandria, Virginia restaurant for every day until the shutdown was over.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, the reigning NCAA football champions, South Carolina’s Clemson Tigers, dined on a reported $3,000-dollars-worth of fast food. Cue the high-low juxtaposition of silver platters full of Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish, and McChicken, gravy boats full of dipping sauces ranging from sweet ‘n’ sour to chipotle BBQ.

How, most of the internet wondered, could serving ubiquitous burgers and limp, lukewarm fries be worthy of a championship football team and a Presidential meal?

But all the President’s “hamberders” launched a thousand memes, including the #whitehousedinners hashtag.

President Trump’s well-reported preference for fast food is paradoxical to many because we imagine our leaders to eat better than the people they lead. We know that America has so much more to offer than lukewarm fast-food hamburgers and Diet Coke. Part of the problem, it seems, is that we likely romanticize our relationships to food and food production.

“We often see ourselves as farmers and ranchers at heart,” said Dr. Cindy Ott, associate professor of history and material culture at the University of Delaware.

However, many of us are far removed from the daily life of cattle ranching and farming. In fact, Ott said, Americans often tend to romanticize what we consume as folksy, simple, and plain, old-fashioned, stick-to-your-ribs cooking, especially when compared to Europe. Yet, what the average American buys in a grocery store has gone through a complex industrial system, be it an apple or a package of ground chuck.


Red-meat America

The funny thing about hamburgers is we can feast on a sackful of them after the bars close or we can savor a burger that is a meal unto itself. That latter burger is as elegant and as well-made as a three-course meal. The best burger I have ever eaten was located off Highway 1 in Big Sur, California, 808 feet above the Pacific Ocean in a restaurant situated high on a hill that folklore has it Hollywood starlet Rita Hayworth and then-husband Orson Welles bought in the 1940s.

The Ambrosiaburger, like many fine burgers before it, is simple: coarse ground low-fat beef, cooked on a hot open brazier (either medium-hot coals or gas flame will do), turn the burger only once, when you see the blood come to the top, served medium rare on toasted and buttered steak buns and served with Ambrosia Sauce, lettuce, sliced tomato, onion, and thinly sliced cheddar cheese. I spent almost $20 on that burger, and I have zero regrets. The only thing I wish for is to return, to feel the ocean breeze and Central California sun upon my face as I bite into six ounces of umami joy.

The versatility and creativity of what a hamburger can be is partially what makes a burger a uniquely American food—burgers are what you grill in your backyard, and they are also luxury items, comprised of wagyu beef and artisanal yeasted buns and locally sourced pickles to one day lab-grown meat. Hamburgers can be as varied as the Hawaiian burger, the Stroganoff Burger, Vietnamese-style Banh Mi Burger, and the Bean Burger, an all-beef patty “crowned with refried beans,” diced onions, crushed Fritos, and Cheez Whiz.

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story, said the bean burger is representative of Mexican-American culture and the city where the burger is rumored to have originated, San Antonio, Texas, which straddles the border between Mexico and the United States. It is a substyle of Southwestern cuisine, and it is delicious, Edge said.

Much of what we believe, about our sensibilities, taste, and communities, can also be reflected in how we order a hamburger.

Many people, American or not, have loved hamburgers as they pack a punch of salt, acid, fat, and heat, and like most things in America, people have very distinct opinions about what a hamburger is and is not. And that is not surprising when considering the values inherent in hamburgers.

Much of what we believe, about our sensibilities, taste, and communities, can also be reflected in how we order a hamburger. A nostalgist might order a beef burger with tomato, lettuce, onions, pickle, ketchup, and mustard, no beer-battered onion rings or ripe avocado on top. The roadside traveler may prefer smashed, thin caramelized burgers, while the traditionalist might choose a thick burger cooked crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. The renegade might place an all-beef patty between donuts, waffles, grilled cheese sandwiches, funnel cakes, and cinnamon rolls and somehow still call it a burger.

If you can dream it, these burgers seem to signal, we can build it for you, no matter how unruly or caloric. Unlike the American Dream, the possibilities of how to construct one’s burger are still limitless, for the time being.

This is America—where you can not only have it your way, but you can also make a mint selling a bigger, better, more unique burger than the original.

And while Dr. Ott of the University of Delaware pointed out that at one point in history eating meat, especially beef, signaled virility, Jenny Kutner also reported on “The Secret Feminist History of Your Favorite Burger Chains.” Some of America’s most beloved regional chains—In-N-Out, Fatburger, and Whataburger—are led by American businesswomen. While the business of burgers remains steady at generating $121.7 billion in 2018, most in the industry know that the healthy eating index and consumers’ desire to have other options beyond beef is ever-growing.

‘Meatless alternatives,’ such as the genetically engineered Impossible™ burger have arrived to compete with beef.  The Impossible™ burger is perhaps both revolutionary and creepy for its ability to mimic the copper taste of blood and sinew due to its use of soy leghemoglobin, also known as ‘heme.’ An Impossible™ burger not only appeals to those who wish to reduce their meat consumption but also allows orthodox Jews who observe strict dietary law prohibiting the mixture of meat and dairy to indulge in a “cheeseburger” while keeping kosher.

And while Impossible™ Foods boasts that the Impossible™ burger, available both at fine-dining restaurants and fast-food chains such as White Castle and Burger King, may help save the planet, scholarly critics are concerned that the genetically engineered plant-based ‘burger’ may cause severe allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock.

On March 22, Impossible™ Foods, the Redwood, California, company producing these genetically modified plant-based burgers, issued its first recall after a piece of plastic was found in a bulk segment of the product. Thankfully, no one was served a hunk of plastic in their Impossible Burger, yet the recall asks consumers to consider that plant-based foods and produce are not immune from problems associated with industrialization. Cue e. Coli infections and hospitalizations linked to ground beef and romaine lettuce in 2019, a multistate outbreak of Salmonella linked to pre-cut melons in 2018, and more.

Burger preferences these days—and perhaps more pointedly, to eat meat or not to—are sometimes like the American people. More and more, it seems, Americans are beginning to inhabit increasingly polarized corners.

“It’s as if some are trying to align red-meat America with the red color in the MAGA hats,” said John T. Edge, an award-winning writer of food culture and the American South. “That’s a dangerous thing to do, to disembowel the truth in the service of nationalism.”

Moreover, Edge cautioned, “So many of the foods that are totemic in our nation—from hamburgers to pizza and apple pie—have multicultural roots.”

“It is limiting and restrictive to make the hamburger a bellwether of nationalism,” Edge said, continuing. “You miss the point entirely of what a hamburger is. It’s not one thing to one person. The hamburger is a passkey to American culture.”


A hamburger is not just a hamburger

The lack of political enthusiasm for the Green New Deal many thought too vague also seemed to reinforce bipartisan politics à la poet T.S. Eliot’s maxim, “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” That, or Ocasio-Cortez served as the perfect bête noire for the Grand Old Party, an up-and-coming 29-year-old Democratic Socialist whose proposed environmental economic stimulus plan, in the words of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, was a “science-fiction novel.”

Since the resolution has failed, Ocasio-Cortez has told media outlets that the aim of the Green New Deal was “muddied” by problems such as an outdated FAQ page released by her office, which mentioned the environmental impact of “farting cows.”

On March 26, when McConnell tried to herd the remaining Democrats into voting yes or no on the resolution, they instead voted present, including co-sponsors of the Green New Deal.

But why? Why did those who felt passionately (still feel, arguably) about fighting climate change and providing “clean” new jobs to marginalized communities not vote in support of the resolution they or their political party had co-sponsored?

In a word, hamburgers.

In a few more words, the story opponents of the Green New Deal crafted for their constituents was that the resolution would take away Americans’ planes, cars, cows, and, by default, one of the nation’s most iconic foods.

Americans are not keen on being told what to do, especially with their food and drink. While in 1773 the Boston Tea Party was as much about “no taxation without representation,” it was also very much about drinking 1.2 million pounds of tea per year without England telling the colonists they could not smuggle in cheaper Dutch tea.

Prohibition of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933 did not last, and when many Americans were told no, they simply created speakeasies, copper moonshine distilleries, and the Roaring Twenties.

There are volumes of stories about how food played, and continues to play, an integral role in American politics and society, but the Green New Deal’s recent defeat shines a light on how the fabricated “war on beef” may have tapped into the American people’s fears about food scarcity, food choice, and the burger’s working-class roots.

In 1928, Presidential hopeful Herbert J. Hoover promised the Republican party would deliver “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” A chicken dinner and cars became symbolic values for what most Americans desired right before the Great Depression hit in 1929: sustenance and mobility. And when France opposed the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bob Ney, then chairman of the Committee on House Administration, renamed French fries “Freedom fries” in three Congressional cafeterias.

There are volumes of stories about how food played, and continues to play, an integral role in American politics and society, but the Green New Deal’s recent defeat shines a light on how the fabricated “war on beef” may have tapped into the American people’s fears about food scarcity, food choice, and the burger’s working-class roots. What is especially vexing in this conversation about beef is the presumption that eating a hamburger and environmental stewardship are mutually exclusive.

“First of all, to be a good rancher, you have to be a good steward of the land,” said Fred Wacker of Cross Four Ranch in Miles City, Montana, one of the main suppliers of natural Angus beef to Whole Foods. “The two go hand in hand. If you don’t take care of the land, your cattle will not do well. If they ruin the riparian areas and the water sources, then you won’t be able to sustain your operation. That’s a big deal in terms of stewardship.”

“I’ve been around when the TV shows had so-called experts that said you shouldn’t eat any beef,” Wacker said of the 30-plus years he has been a Montana rancher. “Then they circle back and say it is a wonderful source of protein and promotes the development of your brain. My belief is that all things are good in moderation.”

And while Americans’ taste for beef—not to mention Uruguay, Argentina, and Hong Kong, whose beef consumption outpaces the U.S. per capita—continues, there is a middle-of-the-road movement gaining increasing traction, not to mention an ever-growing trend toward people eating more chicken than beef.

According to an August 2018 Gallup poll, five percent of Americans identify as vegetarians with three percent as vegans. The likelihood that fewer than one-in-ten American is either a vegetarian or vegan is roughly the same as it was 20 years ago. Meanwhile, “reduceitarianism” aims to encourage people to eat less meat and dairy without taking an all-or-nothing approach to eating. This “everything in moderation” approach often finds a stronger foothold with American diners especially.

“Eating is a cultural act,” said Ott, whose expertise centers on American food and culture and environmental history. “It expresses values. It is something visceral, people take it in and they make these ideas part of themselves. When you’re dealing with issues of food, it can often be a lightning rod to talk about people’s values. In one way it’s because food does connect people to so many different things. It’s personal because you take it in, it affects the economy, it connects with ideas of landscape or with animals or with ethnicity and national identity, and all of these things come together with food.”

In other words, trying to tell someone what to eat—and what not to—hits a nerve, a nerve that is as vast and complicated as trying to define what exactly makes the hamburger so very American.


Coda: Eating a Happy Meal in a red Camaro

Eventually, Andreea De La Torre’s aunt discovered the girls were in an orphanage and brought the sisters home with her. They lived with their aunt, whom they called Mama Seia, for six months until their mother was finally released.

“I overheard my mom talking on the phone one night and telling my dad what happened to her,” De La Torre wrote. “She was beat and tortured because she would not provide the source of who helped our family and others escape from Romania. She had no food or water for days and [was] kept in a dark room. I was so mad at the people that hurt my mom, but I knew I couldn’t say or do much, I was only six at the time.”

What De La Torre’s mother did next is a tale all too familiar to refugees around the world: She readied her two daughters one early August morning, put them in the backseat of a Dacia in the dark, and then they drove, under the cover of blankets when the sun rose, to Yugoslavia, where Andreea’s family fled Europe to fly to Arizona to be reunited with those who had gone before them.

“When we landed in Phoenix, my dad, my maternal grandparents, and my uncle were there waiting for us,” De La Torre remembered. “My uncle had a red Camaro, and he took my sister and me home [while my parents drove in another car]. He took us to McDonald’s, and he got us Happy Meals. When we got back to the house, my uncle began to explain to us what a hamburger, French fries and Coca Cola were. I never in my life [had] seen these kinds of food. My uncle described the hamburger patty as a flat and thinner version of a Romanian meat patty called chiftele.”

While Andreea remembers being initially put off by the strangeness of the bun, she enjoyed the hamburger by itself and especially loved the “thin and crispy” French fries and the “free” toy that came with the meal. She also learned from her uncle that hamburgers, and soon pizza, tacos, chicken nuggets, mac ‘n’ cheese, and other American fare, were not just a means of filling one’s stomach but also a way of adapting to a new childhood and a new culture.

“I remember my uncle saying that we would be going to an American school and these were the kind of foods kids ate, so he wanted us to like it since we would be eating lunches at school.”

Fast-food hamburgers, Andreea wrote, are not really something she eats much of now that she is an adult. But when she gets the occasional Happy Meal for her daughter, a wave of nostalgia hits her as she remembers her first night in America.

For De La Torre, the taste of beef and bun conjures a singular moment in her life and memory. Of that first evening in America, riding in the Sonoran Desert in her uncle’s Camaro, driving into the future of a life where her mother would not be kidnapped and tortured, she and her sister would never have to be separated from their family, and some days she might even enjoy this strange new American delicacy known as a Happy Meal.