From purple mountains to wheatied majesties this whole continent has had one essential incense, one natural perfume, throughout our (temporary) lives: the fragrance of the American hamburger.

The hearths of our fathers blazed, the tender scenes of adolescent love bloomed forth, and the progeny of a great republic all were nurtured on this and naught (or little) else: the hamburger bedded in onions and blessed with a variable balm of mustard, according to our pluralistic beliefs.

In all these years some have said:

"Good Lord, catsup* You'll kill yourself."

Others have paled at the thought of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise on hamburgers? No nation can long survive.

But despite these schisms - heresies - nobody on this whole continent ever questioned the central faith, that a hamburger with onion and mustard was the peculiarly American manna, the gift of God, and alll we needed.

It is known, or at least stated as a fact in some standard works on the hamburger, that America was burgerless untill 1903 when hamburgers and hot dogs both appeared at the St. Louis Fair.

Some say hamburgers are named for Hamburg - it is hard to imagine what else they are named for - but nobody seems sure what the German city has to do with it.

Red meat, one authority on hamburgers alleges, was "shredded with a dull knife" by "the rugged citizens of Estonia, Finland and Latvia," whence the custom spread to the seaport of Hamburg. And in New York, the Hamburg sailors (sick for home) patronized food stands along the wharfs that catered to their longings.

And are we now to be told that all these ancient rites - the heating of the old iron skillet, the delicate shaping of meat into patties, the fishing in the jar for Pickles - lead nowhere but the grave?

Cancer-causing-maybe substances have been found, of "unknown magnitude," in the classic pan-fried American hamburger. And despite the pussy-footing around with "may cause" and "in animals" and "unknown degree of hazard" and so on, either it means hamburgers are killing us or it doesn't.

In the old days, when they burned witches, at least the authorities came out flat and said they were possessed of devils and society would roast in hell if the witches weren't killed.

In our day the authorities are not so brave. They don't say hamburgers are killing us. They just speak of "cancer" and "unkown magnitude" and let every mom in the kitchen take it from there.

The time has come for a survey:

How many Americans trust what they think science is saying, and took the pledge yesterday (when the "possible" hazards of hamburgers were disclosed)?

How many other Americans - cocky, perhaps, and full of bravado, contemptuous of death and danger - propose to keep on eating hamburgers?

Are we supposed to eat cake?

"The danger," one account reported, "can be reduced to zero by broiling hambergs under a heat source." That is safer than broiling them under a cold source, it is believed. Danger can also be reduced to zero, it is said, "by cooking them in a microwave oven."

At least until the next report hints that microwave ovens cause effloretinepsis of the spleen.

Never before has the nation been called on to meet a hamburger crisis.

Saccharin, Cokes, salt, sugar, mineral oil, swordfish, canned Vichyssoise, tomatoes, potatoes - all these and more have been suspect at one time or another in the American diet, for one reason or another.

But the hamburger, like Bess Truman, has never been attacked, whatever one may say of the heated kitchen in general. Hamburgers at least were okay. They followed mother's milk and tasted better.

But now - "Oh, I don't know, I just don't know," said an anguished consumer (or victim) yesterday.

Clouds of unknowing pall the American spring.

They once told Tristan, that great lover, that he had drunk love and death together when he drank the magic cup and then saw Iseult.

Same with the hamburger?