September 7, 2012 8:20 pm

The bun fight

Ever since the hamburger came to prominence in Depression-era America, we can’t seem to resist its cheap but delicious charms. Tim Hayward suffers burger fatigue
An illustration by Elin Svensson©Elin Svensson

A couple of weeks ago there was a good-natured public spat between two of our nation’s best-loved food critics. One had been trying to keep reasonably quiet the eight-seater boite where she’d been enjoying wonderfully authentic food, untroubled by queues. Another reviewed the place. Predictably, the next available seat for lunch is currently in November. So what was so special about this restaurant? Well it was a sushi bar (I am, of course, bound by the food writer’s omerta, but that doesn’t prevent me giving you the GPS co-ordinates N 51.523177° E -0.104013°). It isn’t that sushi is suddenly fashionable. It’s simply that those who eat for a living are desperate for something that isn’t meat in a bun.

For ages now, it seems every second new opening is a burger joint - hip, ironic, authentic, covert or mobile. Any way you want it, as long as it’s medium-rare and slapped in a bap. And so the hottest underground restaurant gossip right now is all about where one can get a small, cleansing helping of raw fish without having to join a tattooed queue.

Burger aficionados point to two climacterics in the modern movement: sometime towards the end of 2002 a replica of an authentically crummy burger shack was created behind a huge velvet drape in the foyer of Le Parker Meridien hotel in Manhattan. It wasn’t the first place to treat junk food as a “theme” but it was the first to do so with such a degree of irony – such golden archness. In 2007, Heston Blumenthal featured a burger in his Perfection TV series. The bun baked for authentic softness; three kinds of beef, minced in such a way that each vermiform strand ran parallel and the aged cheese made rubbery by the addition of sodium citrate – available to viewers from chemists as a proprietary treatment for cystitis. Blumenthal’s research dug out all the reasons we love the burger and reconstructed them with the best ingredients. It was a sincere attempt to honour the burger as an ideal food.

The hamburger came to prominence in the US during the Depression, when diners were “production lines” planned to the new Fordist principles. The equipment was designed so a single operator could create food, while the counter meant that the waiting staff could move, as if on rails, taking orders, serving and cleaning up. The standardised product was the burger, with cheap beef ground to an easy-to-chew texture and a soft bun. The food could be moved to the mouth without requiring plates, cutlery or anything more than a disposable paper napkin.

This recent burger frenzy has been building for a while. First came the “gourmet” burger, offering filet steak, ostrich or venison patties and real cheese, with buns replaced by baguettes, ciabatta or brioche. Mainly, though, gourmet burgers were gigantic. Big enough to hide your face behind, requiring, knife, fork or dislocatable jaw to consume. The business rationale seemed obvious: “Everybody loves a burger – if we can add value we can charge more …”And so it began.

More recently “underground” burger businesses have sprung up; hip, guerrilla operations such as MEATLiquor, offering a return to authenticity, that have cut their teeth in wagons in car parks but have inevitably fetched up in more permanent locations. Predictably, new concepts and mini-chains have followed, each offering a more echt take on the ur-food. Now we find ourselves perilously close to the vision of the early pioneers such as Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. The combination that continues to feed the supposedly undiscerning masses is not difficult to raise to the level of the sublime, but one wonders how often the consumers consider the irresistible capitalist logic of even the most ethical burger.

It seems never more true that “everybody loves a burger” – though anyone considering breaking into the business on the basis of that observation, it might consider those restaurant critics “desperately seeking sushi”.

tim.hayward@ft.com

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