Book Review: 'The Hamburger: A History' by Josh Ozersky and Other Paperbacks

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By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 24, 2009


A History

By Josh Ozersky

Yale. 147 pp. $14

What do Alger Hiss and the hamburger have in common? According to the editors of a new series of books, they are both "Icons of America" -- yet both have had their patriotism questioned. In "The Hamburger," historian Josh Ozersky dispenses quickly with the claim that the hamburger -- never mind its name -- has its roots in Hamburg, Germany: "It doesn't matter if Mongols used to ride around with minced horsemeat under their saddles, on their way to some hamburger-fueled havoc in the thirteenth century," he pronounces. "The hamburger is an American invention."

Ozersky's history of the burger (which he says is only the real thing if it's served on an enriched white bun) takes readers on a culinary tour that begins with a 1763 recipe and ends with the mass-produced, gussied-up versions of today. The story of the burger, Ozersky shows, is nothing less than a reflection of American culture: It is "the story of European immigration in the nineteenth century and urbanization in the twentieth"; later the sandwich "stars in the high-powered story of business on the march, as the hamburger, thanks to the innovations of the White Castle System and the McDonald's Corporation, became the Model T of prepared foods." In recent years, the hamburger has come to embody something more sinister: "a medium for exploitation -- of workers, of consumers, of children," as books like "Fast Food Nation" have argued. Ozersky acknowledges these criticisms, but his slender volume offers a more benevolent examination of the dish he calls "the most powerful food object in the industrialized world."

Also of Interest

-- The family that produced Alice, William and Henry James falls "somewhere between the Alcotts and the Royal Tenenbaums," Paul Fisher writes in his biography of the clan, House of Wits (Holt, $20). Fisher highlights the dysfunction of the Jameses, a group he describes as "forerunners of today's Prozac-loving . . . self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatized, hard-to-mate-or-to-marry Americans."

-- Biologist Stacey O'Brien's affection for the barn owl extends to its smell, which she likens to "maple syrup but not as sweet, something closer to butterscotch and comfy pillows all in one." In Wesley the Owl (Free Press, $15), O'Brien chronicles the 19 years she cared for an injured owl, sharing both the personal tale of her relationship with the bird and her scientific insights on the species.

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