Biting Into An American Icon
The nation's cultural history can be found between two sesame buns.

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.

-- Though the title of his book is Why I Am Not a Scientist (University of California, $22.95), Jonathan Marks admits on the first page that he in fact is one. Specifically, Marks is an anthropologist, and using his training in that field, he dissects thorny questions about what it means to be a scientist and, more fundamentally, what science is -- and is not.

-- They are an unlikely double-dating duo: a 40-something style-conscious, gay Manhattan writer and his elderly father, a retired administrative law judge for the DMV with a fondness for gray vinyl loafers and whose idea of a loving gesture is to buy his son a cemetery plot on the way to his Tuesday tennis game. But in his memoir, Assisted Loving (Harper, $14.99), Bob Morris recounts with humor how he and his father found common ground as they searched for love.

From Our Previous Reviews

-- Former Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs breathes new life into the tension-laden historical moment that was the Cuban missile crisis in One Minute to Midnight (Vintage, $17), a "vivid narrative" that "evokes novelists like Alan Furst, John le Carré or Graham Greene," wrote James G. Hershberg.

-- "I've never read such a spot-on description of the mingled feelings of affection and frustration one feels for one's parents," Ron Charles wrote of Roxana Robinson's novel Cost (Picador, $15), a family drama about the ravages of heroin addiction.

-- Rachel Kushner, whose mother spent a portion of her childhood in the compound of the United Fruit Co. in pre-Castro Cuba, evokes a multilayered, fictional version of this lost world in Telex From Cuba (Scribner, $16). Carolyn See called the book "a pure treat from the cover to the very last page."

-- During a flight delay at O'Hare airport, the hero of Jonathan Miles's "deliciously cynical first novel," Dear American Airlines (Mariner, $13.95), riffs "on everything from 9/11 and middle-age malaise to toilet-stall graffiti and the gecko in Geico commercials, while slyly moving his hero toward something of an epiphany," noted Lisa Zeidner.

Krug is The Post's monthly paperback columnist.

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