For the Want of a Cheeseburger

Some of you may already have seen this essay by Waldo Jacquith, entitled On the impracticality of a cheeseburger. It’s basic premise is thus:

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.

His proof? First hand experience, which he explains earlier in the essay:

Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter.

I don’t wish to poo-poo Mr. Jacquith’s revelation, because, depending upon your definition of cheeseburger, or even what defines a “highly developed, post-agrarian society”, his premise is likely true.

Yeah, I hedged my bets there with that “likely” adverb.

However, this is really a dog-bites-man story. From a cultural perspective, cuisines are dynamic. They change, oftentimes in a span of a generation, altering and evolving based off of a multitude of variables as diverse as financial, access to agrarian resources, and even fads of the wealthy. The distribution of food stuffs to meet the demands of the cultural cuisines shifts is based off of the resources available. The wealthier the nation/region, the more likely they would chase impractical food stuffs. For an example, one need to go no further than to look at the history pepper, a spice that has no nutritional benefit to mankind other than it alters the taste of food, even when you look at it from the Galen perspective of humorism. There was far more emphasis on sugar in the apothecaries trade than there was on pepper, yet pepper helped create empires, and sugar was just another commodity to be traded.

But Mr. Jacquith wasn’t talking about spices, he was talking about cheeseburgers, and how its impracticability makes it able to be a commodity only in today’s Western society. Which is kinda true, but not necessarily agrarian reasons.

Let me define what was available in England and Holland at around the year 1700: Bread, cheese, cattle, and greens. There were several varieties of greens, which were available at different times of the year. Grinding beef was not unheard of, although the technique was likely used more often in the production of sausages, as you wanted the meat to have a longer shelf life. Cheese was a staple in many households, rich and poor, although in the poorer households, you had cheese of lesser quality. The ingredients for a rudimentary cheeseburger were already there.

In fact, meat on bread was a known commodity already by this time. Trenchers were huge chunks of stale bread with meat served atop, sort of a precursor to open faced sandwiches. There are accounts of meats, both sliced and ground, being served on top of buttered bread in taverns in Holland during this period. Adding cheese and greens would not have been a big step to take. So why didn’t it happen?

Well, it might have, specifically in England and Holland, where Tavern beef was quite popular. The problem was that the places who sold these dishes didn’t have written menus, so what they did sell is lost to the ages. The only record we have is from travelers and journalists who would document what they saw in these locations, and typically commonly-had experiences weren’t unique enough to write about regularly. We know beef was served on bread at these locations, we know that some served cheese. What we don’t know is if someone decided to grind beef, melt some cheese on top of it, and then serve it with greens and another slice of bread. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that it could have happened, especially after the idea of “sandwiches” took off in the mid 1700′s. It’s simply that there’s little documented evidence.

But I’m getting beyond my point here. The reason the English and Dutch societies could not/did not produce a good cheeseburger is simply this – there was no money in it. The wealthy had no desire to implement an infrastructure that could produce the food of the lower-to-middle classes on a consistent basis. They could (and did) create an infrastructure that pulled cloves, cinnamon, and pepper from islands 12,500 miles away and spent loads of money to do so, but they had little incentive to ensure that ground beef, bread, and cheese (foods of the lower classes) could be made available to their citizenry on a every day basis.

So Mr. Jacquith’s thesis is true, but for far more complex reasons than the cycles of the growing season.