Here’s my 2014 interview with Andrew F. Smith, author of the book Hamburger: A Global History, in full.
Parts of the interview was used in this D2 story.
ØH: Is it possible to say who invented the hamburger as we know it today, and when? I see there are a lot of theories in circulation.
AS: None of the «origin myths» for the hamburger are supported by primary sources and it is not likely that they are true. The most likely answer based on earliest evidence is that hamburger sandwiches started as a street food sold by vendors in Chicago about 1893.
ØH: How important has the sight of the hamburger, the visual iconography so to speak, been for its rise and spread around the world?
AS: Advertising is everything in fast food operations. The importance of signs for companies, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, and iconic figures, such as Ronald McDonald, were crucial for sales around the world. I’ve never thought about the specific image of the hamburger itself, I suspect that it’s too complex.
ØH: When did the hamburger really start to expand in size and prize, and why? The original idea was for it to be both cheap and tiny? And when did the hamburger make its entrance in more expensive restaurant and even fine dining?
AS: Hamburgers, such as those originally sold by street food venders as well as White Castle and McDonald’s, were very cheap and small. Hamburgers sold in restaurants were always more expensive.
After the Second World War, US fast food hamburger targeted suburban families. Incomes rose and competition in the fast food business increased; companies promoted new products to compete. The size and quality of hamburgers began to increase in the 1970s in the US. At the same time, upscale restaurants began serving higher priced – and higher quality – burgers.
When American hamburger chains went abroad, their target tended to be the well-to-do, co chains began offing higher-quality and higher priced items.
ØH: When did Americans have to start eating their burger with a knife and a fork?
AS: Hamburgers are messy – juice typically runs out the bottom, hence fast food chains provide paper bags to prevent the juice from running on the diner. Upscale restaurants began serving hamburgers in the 1960s. They tended to be larger and juicer than fast food burgers. If you pick a fat, juicy burger up in your hands, you have to be extremely careful not to mess up the table or yourself. It is mush easier – and less messy – to eat it with a knife and fork.
ØH: In Norway today, we see that the way we eat our hamburgers are split in three ways: The traditional fast food chain, the expensive gourmet burger where utensils are involved, and a new wave of what we call the “no bullshit burger”, who tries to combine the basic principles of the burger without the industrial feeling of the chains. Is the US experiencing something similar, and who is “winning”?
AS: Categories 1 & 2 yes – we also have «fast casual» restaurants, which serve hamburgers and lots of other items, but these don’t sound like your «no bullshit burger» category. Fast food chains have been changing rapidly in the US. Most US sales (70 percent) are drivethru, which means the inside dining areas are under utilized. Chanis have been imroving the inner decor and they have installed Wifi systems in hopes of drawing back walk-in customers.
ØH: The «no bullshit burgers» are better known as «better burgers» in the US and «dirty burgers» in the UK, where chains like Five Guys and Shake Shack are in the lead. Do you know of these, and why do you think they have found so many willing customers?
AS: Ahh, yes, I’ve been to Five Guys and Shake Shack many times. Shake Shack initially was just sold in one walk-up location in a park – you had to eat outside on benches. Recently, they opened indoor facilities. I don’t know how well they’ve done.
Five Guys has a good, upscale burger– with plenty of choices for condiments – and burgers are cooked to order, and the quality is better. But the indoor facilities of Shake Shack and Five Guys aren’t much different than other upscale fast food chains.
ØH: But what do you think are the reasons for their recent success?
AS: They both have good burgers that do not taste like those of their competitors. Shake Shack has the advantage of Danny Meyer, who is known for his top-rated NYC restaurants. Five Guys have been rapidly expanding, and they’ve received plenty of PR. Many hamburger afficionados look for the «next best thing», and I wonder how sales will be once the newness of Shake Shack and Five Guys wears off.