Q& A | Andrew F. Smith

Andrew F. Smith: A Culinary Adventurer Embroiled in Hamburgers

(By Lisa Kahane)
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Andrew F. Smith could have written about anything for "Edible," a new series of culinary history books. But hamburgers were the obvious choice. His first memory of eating outside his house was going to a small hamburger stand near his home in California. One of his most memorable moments: tasting his first burger at McDonald's in 1955. Oh, and for research purposes, he has eaten hamburgers in 30 countries.

A professor of culinary history at the New School in New York, Smith has always taken an academic approach to food. He is the author of The Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food and he edited The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, published last year.

Smith spoke to staff writer Jane Black about his new book, "Hamburger: A Global History" (Reaktion Books, 2008). Excerpts follow:

Are hamburgers really that interesting?

They're amazing. They start out as a street food in American cities in the late 1890s. Within 70 years, they're a global phenomenon. There are very few things like that. It is, in my opinion, the first commercial global food.

How did burgers get their start and, for that matter, their name?

There is such a thing as Hamburg beef that was considered the highest quality. When Germans immigrated to America in great numbers in the mid-1800s, they came and opened delicatessens and low-end restaurants, and they served Hamburg steak. It was basically the patty we know today, but with sauces on top and eaten with knife and fork. Soon it moved from a German restaurant item to a popular restaurant item everywhere. In the late 19th century, when street carts were able to serve heated food, they started serving the patties because they were cheap and popular. The bun was added so that you could eat it more easily.

Did they always come with french fries?

Actually, that connection doesn't begin until World War II. During the war, there were restrictions on beef, and White Castle and almost every other chain almost went out of business. They shifted into potatoes because there were no restrictions on that. It was a great combination, because the potatoes cost nothing. To this day, most hamburger operations make money on the french fries and the soda.

What surprised you most about hamburgers today?

I couldn't believe how many indigenous hamburger chains there were and that some were even coming to America. In Japan, there's MOS, which opened a year after McDonald's first came there. But instead of cheap, they went expensive. They hand-grind the meat, and it's been incredibly successful. There's a Filipino chain called Jollibee, which started in 1975. It now has outlets in the United States and Hong Kong.

Let's cut to the chase. Where do you find your ultimate hamburger?

I'm now into Five Guys. I had it when I was in Washington last week. We had it on Sunday and on Monday. It's juicy and fresh. I like that they grind the meat there and the potatoes are processed there on the spot. I love In-N-Out Burger in California. They have high-quality food, and it's made to order. And they have a secret menu that you have to go online to get. It adds kitsch to it.

Are you philosophically opposed to fancy $15, even $20, burgers?

I wrote about a $5,000 burger [at Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas], but I didn't consume it. There are good places with high-end burgers. But the burger's main claim to fame is that it's good and inexpensive.

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