Produced by Marc Santo & Scott Newman
Camera by Kevin Schaefer
Edited by Christie Brown
Associate Producer: Juliana Reiters
Interview by Marc Santo
“The things that are wonderful and uplifting about the hamburger: The beauty of its circular form, the circumferential flushness of where the bun meets the burger, the brown surface that’s erupting with the nutty, buttery, roasted flavors that come from the encounter of metal and meat. There’s the soft, viscous cheese that contrasts with the juice that’s coursing around on the inside. There’s the way that your hands stay clean, but your mouth gets greasy. There’s the way you can eat it while driving. There’s the way you can eat it while walking. There’s the taste of strip steaks, rib steak, short rib and chuck. There’s the way your mouth feels when it arrives on your palette that is simultaneously exciting and tranquilizing and then, there’s that nourishing, infantile sensation of being ultimately safe.”
These are the words of Josh Ozersky, aka “Mr. Cutlets,” a James Beard Award-winning food writer, whose books include “Meat Me in Manhattan,” “A Carnivore’s Guide to New York” and “The Hamburger: A History.”
As the former restaurants editor of Citysearch.com and Time Magazine columnist, Josh has eaten at just about every restaurant in the city. But what he knows best is meat, especially hamburgers. He knows so much about them that some might even consider him an expert on the topic.
MARC SANTO: Describe burger purists.
JOSH OZERSKY: Burger purists are a strange breed. I would classify them sociologically on the weirdness scale somewhere between Civil War re-enactors and foot fetishists. They have a historical cast of mind and they’re always walking around with a kind of antiquarian bent, thinking about this old time, classic hamburger that was eaten by a Wimpy or a Jughead and so forth. They’re people who aren’t really fit to live in this world and when I talk about them, frankly, I’m talking about myself.
MARC: Why are you so into hamburgers?
JOSH: My exploration of burgers began shortly after I could walk. First I found out I could walk, and then I found out that I didn’t like vegetables. I suspect that I may have had some kind of a prenatal burger experience. I can never remember a time when I wasn’t either eating a hamburger or wanting a hamburger. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t go out with any girls. My only friends and romances were with hamburgers. There’s something sad about that, but it’s the truth.
MARC: A lot of people assume the hamburger came from Hamburg, Germany. Is that true?
JOSH: A hamburger by universal platonic definition is a disk-like shape of ground beef with maybe salt and pepper that’s been cooked either on a grill or a griddle and put on a soft white enriched bun. If it’s got spices or weird toppings, if it’s on toast, it’s not a hamburger. The idea of the hamburger as its own dish with a bun that’s specifically meant to fit it as a unit happened in America, and was expanded, improved, rationalized and perfected entirely within the bounds of the continental United States. Louie’s Lunch in New Haven claims to have invented the hamburger, but they serve a ground beef patty on toast, and that’s not a hamburger. The hamburger as we all know it was invented in 1916, in Wichita, Kansas by a fry cook named Walter Anderson. He and his partner Billy Ingram founded White Castle, which became the first real hamburger restaurant and the first real hamburger chain.
MARC: So a hamburger on toast is not a hamburger?
JOSH: There’s only one type of hamburger that matters. There’s an infinite variety in terms of meat blends, with or without cheese, but there’s no such thing as a “salmon burger,” “lamb burger” or all the other various spiced grotesqueries you see described in cooking magazines. Those are not hamburgers, they’re meatballs or meatloaves or meat cakes. To try and reinvent it for the sake of a cheap novelty is just to indulge in a gastronomic promiscuity that is decadent, libertine and effete.
MARC: What are acceptable variations?
JOSH: There’s a Darwinian pressure on hamburger restaurants to differentiate themselves from their competitors, so when Dave Edgerton, founder of Burger King, invented the Whopper it was like, ‘We’re going to make something so massive that only a Titan’s appetite could consume it.’ Double burgers happened in the ‘30s when Bob’s Big Boy invented the Big Boy, which McDonald’s would later rip off in the form of the Big Mac. Cheese came in ‘37 via the Pasadena Diner and they served it with American cheese, which is the cheese God intended. Ketchup and mustard should not be on it. Sauce is a prophylactic, a cheat, a disguise; it’s like a Klansman’s hood—a way to cover up evil. A real burger, something that’s good and virtuous, requires only salt to enhance its flavor, not ketchup to mask it.
MARC: What’s the future of burgers?
JOSH: The future of burgers, just like its past, is an uninterrupted flow of triumph and irresistible expansion. The hamburger is the most powerful food object that ever existed and it only gets stronger every year. Nothing can weaken it. The diets couldn’t, the “green” movement couldn’t. The Atkins Diet came along and said you should eat it without the bun and now people are on this whole kick about the unsustainable, industrial agri-business. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. Everyone wants hamburgers and they’re only going to want hamburgers. The more people there are, the more hamburgers they’re going to want. The hamburger is almost everything that’s good in the world on one sandwich, at least to an unimaginative person like myself.