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The Most Important Burger Moments in History

We got David Michaels, author of the new book ‘The World Is Your Burger: A Cultural History,’ to select pivotal points in the evolution of the classic fast food dish.

Given how many hamburgers humans put away a year, it’s hard to imagine a time when the fast food favorite didn’t exist. In actuality, that time wasn’t all that long ago. While David Michaels traces the origins of the dish back to 1st century Rome in his new book, The World is Your Burger: A Cultural History, the modern version, he notes, really began showing up in the late 1800s. (But there’s still no consensus on who should get credit for inventing the recipe.) However, the burger hasn’t just become a dining staple. It is a major focal point of popular culture and has a way of reinventing itself for every new generation. I asked Michaels to pinpoint some of the most pivotal moments in the history of the burger. Read on for his picks.

The First White Castle Location

“What Ford did for the motor car White Castle did for the burger. With the 1921 opening of its first location in Wichita, Kansas–complete with turrets–the fast-food joint as we know it was born. Unlike the hamburger stands that came before it, White Castle’s smartly uniformed staff served their customers quality-controlled patties amid gleaming enamel and chrome. It took the burger off the street and into clean, efficient yet inexpensive restaurants. Just five cents bought you a slider with onions and pickle (customers could choose to add ketchup or mustard, but nothing else). White Castle’s signature thin, square patty was first designed to cook fast and maximize space on the grill; nearly 100 years later, Time magazine would declare it the most influential burger of all time.” 

McDonald’s Sets the Standard

“Maurice and Richard McDonald were the ones to put the fast in fast food. By turning their kitchen into an assembly line and doing away with menu choices, table service and even the cutlery that slowed down other restaurants, the brothers served up burgers at speeds and in volumes never had seen before. Businessman Ray Kroc saw the potential of their formula and turned it into one of the world’s most successful franchise operations, driving the brand into suburbs and hearts across America and then, the world. No other name has ever attained such close association with the hamburger and the global spread of fast food.”

The Hard Rock Cafe Opens

“McDonald’s was one of the first and certainly the biggest, but it wasn’t the last. Long after the burger behemoths came a panoply of restaurants finding new ways to serve the world’s favorite fast food. In 1971, two U.S. expats with a yearning for the taste of home brought the first American-style hamburger to Britain. Their original Hard Rock Cafe, in an old Rolls Royce dealership, soon won the admiration of Eric Clapton, who had his guitar hung on the wall as a way of reserving his table of choice. Not to be outdone, Pete Townshend of The Who donated one of his guitars–and thus the Hard Rock’s unique combination of burgers and music memorabilia began.” 

In-N-Out Burgers Go to the Oscars

“In-N-Out has been serving the West Coast’s best-loved burgers since 1948 with few changes to its menu (“secret” one included). Its template of well-crafted burgers, fries and shakes won it legions of celebrity fans: on many an Oscar night, winners and losers alike would stop at its LA locations to celebrate–or drown their sorrows–“Animal Style.” But in 2016 the chain showed its true place in Hollywood when it catered Vanity Fair’s post-Academy Awards bash. Over 1,000 In-N-Out burgers were served at that year’s party, and went down so well they made the menu again in 2017–proving that no matter how refined the atmosphere, a burger always hits the spot.”

Daniel Boulud Debuts the Gourmet Burger

“Award-winning chef Daniel Boulud created his burger as a riposte: not to the Americans who invented it, but to the Breton separatists who bombed a McDonald’s in France in April 2000. The attack prompted Boulud to reflect on the burger’s cultural significance. Were the French jealous of America’s creation? And could he do better? With that he set out to make “maybe the greatest burger on Earth”: braised beef combined with truffle and foie gras, horseradish sauce and a Parmesan bun. The db burger, as it was christened, took three days to make and became the first of a new breed—the gourmet burger, in which haute cuisine techniques sit at ease alongside America’s most popular and perhaps simplest food.” 

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Andy Warhol Eats a Burger 

“An immediately recognizable object, entwined with advertising and consumer culture, the hamburger was a gift to Pop Art. The biggest Pop artist of all, Andy Warhol, painted burgers: a small, squashed, distinctly unappetizing one that stars in his 1985-6 silkscreen Hamburger. Perhaps more famously, he ate them. In 1981, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth persuaded Warhol to be filmed eating a Burger King Whopper, after which he turns to the camera and says, ‘My name is Andy Warhol and I just finished eating a hamburger.’ The most famous artist in the world has the camera turned on him to record him participating in the most commonplace of American pastimes. It’s a fascinating example of how an icon like the burger can unite the everyday and celebrity, mass consumption and art.”