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Death by Cheeseburger
An investigative report from Cheeseburger Brown
Death By Cheeseburger, a history of the food by Cheeseburger Brown - illustration by Matthew Hemming

Living as we do in times dominated by endless talk of feuding kings, rampaging rhetoric, radar-resistant homicidal robots, GPS-guided death rays and other dollar-intensive ordnance delivery vectors, it is sometimes nice to take a moment out to consider something a little more simple, savoury and sensual.

Consider this oft-quoted ode by tightwad songster and restaurateur Jimmy Buffet:

I like mine with lettuce and tomato,
Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes,
Big kosher pickle and a cold draught beer;
Well, good god Almighty, which way do I steer?

As spring comes again to the northern hemisphere, wetting and ripening our muddy backyards and thawing the ice from our barbecues, we collectively re-awaken to the endless decadent possibilities offered by the meaty junk-food staple known throughout the world as the cheeseburger.

If the melting pot exists, the cheeseburger may well be its most palpable product; to take a bite of it is to take a bite of history...

- Elizabeth Rozin, Primal Cheeseburger (Penguin 1994)

The story of the cheeseburger begins under the chapped ass of some fierce thirteenth century Mongol warrior, riding hard across Eurasia on the back of his foaming steed. You see, the Tartars felt that the tough ribbons of gamey beef to which they had access on the Russian Steppe should best be tenderised by using them as saddles. This delicacy would, with some modification, eventually find its way to the West as le steak tartare.

Nineteenth century German emigrants brought a taste for the dish to the New World in a variation known as Hamburg Steak which was often served lightly broiled and topped with a raw egg. By this time sweaty Mongolian ass had been replaced with more conventional forms of pounding the meat tender, leading to a wider adoption than would previously have been possible.

Who it was that first began encasing the patties in bread is a matter of some contention. The people of Seymour, Wisconsin, USA (home of the Hamburger Hall of Fame) staunchly maintain that the first genuine hamburgers were sold by their very own "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen, starting at the Outagamie County Fair in 1885 when his customers complained that his meatballs were too messy to eat while wandering the fairgrounds. Otto Kusaw claims to have solved the same problem on the wharves of Hamburg in 1891, by folding steak inside of a bun for the dock workers. Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut claims to have invented the modern hamburger in 1895 when a customer at his concession stand needed meat but had to dash, so he ended up using bread as a sort of edible glove for handling beef. Not to be outdone the Texans stand by Fletcher Davis who began frying Hamburg steak and serving it as a "hamburger sandwich" at the World's Fair in 1904 (the same World's Fair that legend has it brought us the red-hot frankfurter, the first French fries and French's American mustard, to boot). The standard bun thickness may have been augmented by a short-order cook named J. Walter Anderson of Wichita, Kansas, who went on to establish the first chain of franchised hamburger restaurants, White Castle, in the 1920s, which was followed in the 1930s by the Wimpy chain named in honour of the classic Popeye character. With the advent of drive-in restaurant culture in the 1940s hamburgers found a secure place on the North American menu.

Even more contentious than the issue of who originated the hamburger is the question of who perfected it with an application of melted cheese.

In the same the way that several forwarding-thinking nineteenth century working-class gastronomists had come upon the idea of housing loose beef in a sandwich shell for enhanced portability, there are dozens of nearly simultaneous claims to being the prime mover of the subsequent popularisation of the cheese-coated hamburger.

The inventor may be Louis E. Ballast, proprietor of the Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In in Denver, Colorado who remembers having his curdy insight in 1935, after experimenting unsuccessfully with peanut butter beef patties and fried chocolate and meat confections best left undescribed. Carl and Margaret Kaelin of Kaelin's Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky think they beat Ballast by a year, happening accidentally upon the cheeseburger in 1934 in a "hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!"-type incident. But such talk may be causing poor old Lionel Sternberger to roll in his grave, knowing full-well that he came up with the "cheese hamburger" first back in 1926 while working the grill at the Rite Spot in Pasadena, California. Either way, the cheese topping and the term "cheeseburger" quickly became ubiquitous.

Recipes for and variations on the basic cheeseburger abound, ranging from familiar pairings like bacon to create a "banquet-burger" (another victim of simultaneous invention, but the credit for the name seems to trace back to Fran's Diner in Toronto, Canada), to more creative concoctions including but not limited to cheeseburger chowder, cheeseburger soup, cheeseburger rice, inside-out cheeseburger meatloaf, cheeseburger casserole, chocolate cheeseburgers, cheeseburger sandwiches, cheeseburger noodles, cheeseburger loaf, cheeseburger macaroni, cheeseburger pizza, cheeseburger pie, inverted loaded cheeseburgers, cheeseburger cookies, cheeseburger stew, giant cheeseburgers, cheeseburger rounds, cheeseburger brown betty, Gummi cheeseburgers, cheeseburger-on-a-roll; gourmet preparations such as gorgonzola cheeseburgers with pancetta, Swiss cheeseburger bisque, cheeseburger quiche; oddities like artificial cheeseburger substitutes, veggie burgers, "untraditional" cheeseburgers, home-made imitation McDonald's cheeseburgers, home-made imitation White Castle cheeseburgers; and national variations like cheeseburger tacos, Danish cheeseburgers, Greek cheeseburgers, and, of course, Chinese-style.

Love of a good cheeseburger has been known to stir the passions of many, including those who would worship the cheeseburger experience and its convenience-packaged offspring, those who would perfect the tasting with a matching wine, those who would go to great lengths to acquire a cheeseburger, those who would pay outrageous sums, and those who would prefer it meatless and without cheese.

Apparently there is a market for people who want cheeseburger-themed dancing telegrams and designer T-shirts, cheeseburger-shaped installation art, dog-toys, hats, magnets, games, cooking timers and talking condiment dispensers. People have even been known to use cheeseburgers as themes for plays, while others warn us about the Cheeseburger Paradox. In the dead of the night astronomers delight in the gleam of the Cheeseburger Nebula.

Apparently both troubled, narcissistic queers and religiously observant Jews are largely alienated by the cheeseburger phenomenon. I think this is a darn shame, but there are those who would disagree...

While it has been said that calorie-loaded cheeseburgers can be a part of a healthy diet, in combination with a sedantry lifestyle they can be deadly. Listen, kids: Mayor McCheese didn't retire -- he died riddled with cancer, his corpse unnaturally preserved for eternity by McDonald's weird alchemy. While athletic types can be well-fueled by cheeseburgers, for most of us they are simply sources of clogged arteries and obesity.

But the trouble doesn't stop there. A little bird told me that excessive beef consumption can be detrimental to the overall health of human beings and the world at large. Issues include deforestation, pollution and the support of perverse local economies. According to Richard Robbins of Plattsburgh University:

The answers [as to why so much beef is consumed in spite of such environmental damage] involve understanding the relationships among Spanish cattle, British colonialism, the American government, the American bison, indigenous peoples, the automobile, the hamburger, and the fast-food restaurant.

Beyond putting the ills of the world out of your mind while you wash your over-sized automobile with potable water and watch it run into the petroleum-rainbow gutter, the key to really enjoying your cheeseburger is partly predicated on a healthy serving of happy disinformation but mostly determined by the freshness of your ingredients: good meat lightly pressed, with crisp lettuce, tomato and red onion topped with real Dijon mustard. Europeans and European-wannabes may wish to add a glaze of mayonnaise. Relishes and chutneys are optional. Velveeta is seldom appropriate; rather, go for a mix of real cheeses like natural cheddar and havarti with smoked gouda to accompany bacon or mozzarella for fried mushrooms and white onions.

Cheeseburgers are juicy and delicious, and they smell like summer. Cheeseburgers are beautiful (even if they do happen to ramp up aggression in some individuals now and again, or wang up the Earth's chakras). Cheeseburgers are the most valuable gift the cows of the world can offer us, a gem-like confluence of curd and flesh. Close your eyes and savour it, with the hard snap of a crisp pickle as your companion. Little else is finer.

Now and forever, make my every burger cheesy.

Fin.


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