Whenever I think of the Whopper — which is not much these days when we can stuff our maws with hand-ground, custom-blend, brioche-bun burgers — I think of breaking the law.
Well, not so much the law, but the ground rules that my high school in Omaha laid down for all students: You will remain on campus for lunch. No ifs, ands or burgers.
Half the thrill of eating a “flame-broiled” Whopper at the Burger King down the hill from school, of course, was trying to out-maneuver the teachers, administrators and janitorial staff who tried to stand between us and our lunchtime destiny with ground beef. Adrenaline, it would seem, is the secret ingredient to great-tasting burgers.
Who knows how many times friends and I pried open the velvet bars of our suburban public school for an illicit trip to BK, but I do know that I never paid 55 cents for a Whopper, even all those years ago in the late 1970s. But from Thursday through Sunday, Burger King is selling its signature burger for exactly that price (but only if you purchase another full-priced Whopper first, which either means you drag a friend along or pile on the excessive cals).
The price busting is part of the 55th anniversary of the Whopper, BK’s iconic sandwich that was introduced to America in 1957. In his book, “The Hamburger: A History,” (Yale University Press, 2009) Josh Ozersky writes about co-founder Jim McLamore’s role in creating the Whopper and rebranding a dying company known as Insta Burger King into one of the largest hamburger chains in the world.
“Soon after taking over, McLamore redesigned the process, creating the horizontal broiler conveyor belt still in service today. The system was patented and the ‘Insta-’ dropped forever. The broiled burger was said to taste better than the traditional griddled variety and fed into the national cookout craze. (Some Burger Kings even had ‘backyard patios’ built into them.)
“And then in 1957, McLamore added his own flourish to the newly launched business,” Ozersky continues. “He noticed that people liked a big hamburger they were eating at a rival restaurant. The reason they liked it, he gathered, was because it was big. So, he reasoned, why not make a big hamburger at Burger King? But he needed a name that was big. ‘I suggested that we call our product a Whopper, knowing that this would convey imagery of something big,’ he explains thoughtfully in his autobiography, ‘The Burger King.’ Amazingly, Burger King would have the field to itself for almost twenty years, since the imperious McDonald’s did not fire back until 1972 with the invention of the Quarter Pounder. (The original jumbo burger, the Big Boy, would make it to a national stage only in 1968 as the Big Mac, the victim of ad hoc franchising and the lack of an empire-building vision.)”
It’s funny, but when I was a high schooler, kids used to argue over who produced the best burger: McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s (or even one of the many knock-offs in Omaha) and made a point of driving to their preferred outlet, routinely skipping other fast-food joints en route. We didn’t have the equivalent of a Ray’s Hell-Burger or anything approaching a chef-driven burger like Frank Ruta’s at Palena Cafe. We were happy in our ground-beef ignorance.
Today, fast-food companies get bashed for the nutritional value of their products, as they should, and for their role in America’s obesity problem — all of which has made it virtually impossible to enjoy a cruddy chain burger without some level of guilt (choose yours: low, medium or intolerable). Perhaps that’s how it should be, to wean Americans off the processed-food teat.
But I have to admit: When I think of sneaking off for a Whopper, I still crack a smile as the smell of char-broiled meat fills my head. It’s a memory that I have zero guilt about.