Notes from the Burger Underground

 I want fries with that!


There are two key tomes in the canon of hamburger lore, both published in 2005. It was a banner year for hamburger research. George Motz produced his highly regarded documentary and accompanying book, Hamburger America, and John T. Edge published Hamburgers & Fries: an American story.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a regular contributor to several food magazines. Hamburgers & Fries is a journey across America to discover the hamburger in all its glorious manifestations. It is also a response to the times. While part of the nation was damning fast food and its effect on society, haute restaurants were in an ever escalating war to create the most outrageous and expensive hamburgers imaginable.

But hamburgers are neither industrial death machine nor conspicuous extravagance. They are a uniquely American creation, inexpensive and egalitarian, and, for the last 100 years, a reflection of the times and places that shape them. As the Charles Kuralt quote that opens the book says, “You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.”

Edge is ecumenical, with a broad definition that takes in nearly every regional expression of a hamburger. Along with the usual White Castles and pimento burgers, we discover the onion burgers of Oklahoma and the slug burgers (soy) and dough burgers (flour) of Mississippi, Depression-era efforts to extend expensive beef with cheaper ingredients. Edge delves the mysteries of the “loose meat” sandwiches in Iowa and Kansas and the steamed burgers of Connecticut. I will admit that “loose meat” is disturbing to contemplate, much less type. He explores the bean burgers of San Antonio, replete with Fritos and Cheez Whiz; Minnesota’s Jucy Lucy, two patties with molten cheese sealed in the middle; and Miami’s Cuban frita, a spiced patty topped with crispy shoestring fries. It is a voyage reminiscent of Calvin Trillan’s Tummy Trilogy or Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, less a travelogue than a reflection on food and place.

There are two areas where the book falls down. While Edge explores some of the standard origin stories of Hamburg steak and trots out a solid half-dozen claimants to first placing it on a bun, he doesn’t come to any conclusions. He just says, “Screw it, let’s go have a burger,” and leaves it at that. It’s unsatisfying.

His greater sin is the short shrift he gives to French fries. Despite the title, Hamburgers & Fries, fries barely make an appearance. Again, this is a controversial topic in burgiatry. How much weight should be given to the fries when assessing the quality of a hamburger joint? But if you are going to call your book Hamburgers & Fries, you’d better damn well write about fries.

Hamburgers & Fries is a fun ride, and John T. Edge is a strong writer, though a little florid now and again. With the book on the bargain tables for $4 or $5, Hamburgers & Fries should be on the shelves of every burger enthusiast, even if it doesn’t properly acknowledge the importance of the fry.