In All About the Burger: A History of America’s Favorite Sandwich written by Sef Gonzalez, readers are taken on a journey through time, one centered around the beloved hamburger. Tracking its evolution and cultural impact through a combination of anecdotes, vintage ad and menu images, and accounts of establishments that popularized it, it’s easy to see how the author’s devotion to the this particular menu item could fill a museum (it did and still does) dedicated to the subject. Nothing less could be expected of a writer who has come to be known, through his blogging exploits prior to publishing this book, as the “Burger Beast.”
While Gonzalez explains early in the book that the burger’s journey to the U.S. has no single definitive history, the reader is treated to extensively-researched accounts of its roots in terms of geography, preparation, and how it was marketed by various enterprises, some of which continue to thrive today. We learn that before Americans voiced their geopolitical displeasure by coining the term “Freedom Fries,” there was “Liberty Steak,” a 1918 re-branding of burgers near the end of World War I, when usage of the German word “hamburger” was leaving a bad taste in many American mouths. We are privy to hamburger-related quotations that date as far back as 1893, and to the burger’s rise from a humble snack sold for a nickel apiece, or “by the sack,” as done by the enduringly popular franchise White Castle.
As with any industry, there will be titans and game-changers who’ve managed to refashion and upgrade our concept of what their product and the places to find it can and should be. This fact is not lost on Gonzalez, who devotes entire chapters to purveyors like Wendy’s, Burger King, and McDonald’s, whose names have become synonymous with the word “hamburger.” Here, the reader is brought along as Gonzalez follows each franchise from inception, through innovations that distinguished them from their contemporaries, and onward to national acclaim. We learn that White Castle deserves inclusion in that number as well, its early success having inspired a number of copycat establishments due to its pioneering advances in areas like improved spatulas, better kitchen exhaust, custom buns, and better meat sourcing.
And while the burger may forever be though of as an American institution, perhaps the author’s most compelling entry is one that introduces the reader to a sandwich called the Frita Cubana (often shortened to simply “Frita”), a variant on the burger as we have come to know it. Originating in Cuba, but having found a home in Miami, Florida, Fritas were first sold from sidewalk stands, presenting an early intersection of burgers and street food. Gonzalez approaches his topic of the hamburger with a zeal rooted in childhood fascination with them, and writes about them in a doting, effervescent manner that makes clear his nickname of “Burger Beast” is well-earned. This is a book that makes food history education taste good, and one that burger aficionados will appreciate returning to time and again.
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Mango (April 15, 2019)