When I meet someone new, I have a batch of ice-breaker questions I like to trot out: When was the last time you punched someone in the face? Or, aside from driving while impaired, if you were going to be arrested for anything in the next year, what do you think it would be? But my favorite is, how many hamburgers would I have to eat before your opinion of me changed?
The burger question always prompts clarifying inquiries before people answer, mostly having to do with the size of the burger or if it’s grass-fed beef. Answers have ranged from three (are you kidding? I could and will eat three burgers while sleeping) to nine (in that response, the person would think poorly of me if I ate between five and eight burgers, but if I ate nine, I’d become their personal savior).
I like the burger/opinion question because I fantasize daily about eating nine burgers, but also because it’s entirely plausible that I’d start eating hamburgers and not know when to stop.
I’m not alone. Americans eat three burgers per week, which amounts to 50 billion a year. For a time, McDonald’s famously updated its signs noting how many burgers it had sold (which prompted Jerry Seinfeld to say “Why is McDonald’s still counting? How insecure is this company? … ‘Ooh, 89 billion sold? All right, I’ll have one!’ I’d like to tell the CEO of McDonald’s, “Look. We all get it, okay? You’ve sold a lot of hamburgers. Whatever the number is, just put up a sign, ‘McDonald’s: We’re Doing Very Well.’”). McDonald’s stopped updating its burgers-sold number in 1994 at 99 billion but estimates put that number now at well over 300 billion.
If burgers aren’t about numbers, they seem to be about something that isn’t satisfying hunger. Jogging my brain for hamburger-related memories produced quite a few, like how I put on 10 pounds easy one summer when the girl I was with wanted to collect all the Teenie Beanie Babies that came McDonald’s Happy Meals but didn’t eat meat, so I had to take quite a few cheeseburgers for the team.
I remember watching a friend in college eat the dinner-plate sized, one-pound “Belly Buster” hamburger – bun and mound of fries (which came on a separate plate) and all – at Fat Albert’s in Greeley.
When eating sliders, I like imagining they’re regular-sized burgers and I’m a giant.
Once I went through the McDonald’s drive-thru and my friend had ordered a salad, which came with an exercise DVD. I remember thinking that the DVD should have come in the bag with the two double cheeseburgers I’d ordered.
I bet if you went through your memory, you’d find similar hamburger-related stories. Because, save for the non-meat-eaters among us, hamburgers are loved by all – a favorite food of children and adults alike. And if there’s one food that is most closely associated with America, it’s the hamburger, reflecting something about us as people.
One reason is that the history of fast food and the history of the automobile are closely intertwined. Take McDonald’s: Ray Kroc transformed a small California burger joint owned by two brothers named McDonald into a fast-food empire using assembly-line-type concepts to assemble and serve burgers and fries, similar to how Henry Ford revolutionized auto manufacturing.
And there’s a reason why the burger chains we still know and love began popping up in the ’50s: Car culture. As Michael Pollan writes in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” fast food and, in turn, the hamburger, was practically invented to be eaten while driving. The term “fast food” may refer to the speed in which it was cooked and assembled, but as drive-ins gave way to the drive-thru, who knew how fun it could be to eat at 65 mph?
Unable to recall ever really having a bad one, maybe we love hamburgers so much because they’re almost impossible to mess up. Perhaps that’s why you can’t find a restaurant that doesn’t have a burger on its menu. That you gotta love.