In the heart of what might be the most celebrated cuisine in the world, a curious thing is happening: people are clamoring for an unglamorous American food. "Le hamburger," as it's called in France, has bombarded restaurants in the country otherwise known for much fancier food, becoming one of the most popular dishes. The love is such that three quarters of all food establishments now sell at least one hamburger, and 80 percent of those say it's their best-selling item, according to a recent study.
(The Pink Panther, suffice it to say, would know better than to botch the word today.)
But France's hamburger fixation is hardly unique. Rather, it's emblematic of what has proved to be a common affair.
Just ask those who live in Australia, where people ingest nearly three times as many hamburgers per capita as they do in France (albeit with strange things on top). Or the British, who, let's face it, have pretty questionable taste in food, but still appreciate hamburgers more. Even the Russians appreciate them at least as much.
Or better yet, look to the hamburger's birthplace, where the sandwich has been defying major food trends for quite some time.
Ever since the mid-1970s, beef consumption has been tumbling in the United States, falling from a peak of 94 pounds per person per year in 1976 to 54 pounds in 2014, according to government data. Over the past 15 years alone, per capita beef consumption has dipped by 20 percent (and meat consumption has fallen off a cliff).
But hamburgers have done just the opposite, gaining in popularity even as Americans lose their taste for the broader beef and meat categories. A stroll through the archives uncovered a 1979 article by the Associated Press, which cited significantly lower per capita hamburger consumption than the 30 hamburgers per capita observed today, according to NPD Group. This is what it said:
According to industry and government estimates, there will be 17.2 pounds of hamburger produced this year for every person in the country. In 1978, there was 20.5 pounds of hamburger per capita; in 1976, there was a record 23.9 pounds per capita.
The year 1976 is a nice marker, both because of what happened then (it was, at the time, a record year for hamburger and beef consumption) and what has happened since (the two have clearly diverged). Today, we eat much less beef but many more hamburgers—about six extra burgers per person, or roughly 30 percent more than we did back then.
Those who have abandoned meat, or at least tried to, in other words, have likely found themselves pining for a hamburger and then acting upon the craving clearly are not alone. I certainly have.
There are other ways in which hamburgers seem to move against the stream. In recent years, for instance, they have shown resilience despite a tempered interest in sandwiches. In 2014, restaurants sold 2 percent fewer sandwiches than they had the year before, but 3 percent more hamburgers, according to a report by NPD Group.
"Americans simply love their burgers," Bonnie Riggs, who is NPD’s restaurant industry analyst, explained at the time.
The appeal of the hamburger owes to many things, the first of which is they it is a delicious meal. "It took the apple thousands of years to become the most widely distributed fruit tree in the world, whereas the hamburger established itself within half a century in almost every capital city," Louise Fresco explains in his 2015 book Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat, alluding to the hamburger's near ubiquitous appeal.
The fact that hamburgers can be reproduced effortlessly and without compromising quality has helped too, propelling its rise, at the very least. This, Fresco touches upon, too:
What made McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, the once ubiquitous White Castle, and their like such successful companies was not the hamburger itself, nor the franchise system that has enabled it to penetrate all markets, but the systems and technology used to ensure that identical hamburgers would roll off production lines all over the world to be served to a public that knew exactly what to expect.
The hamburger has also shown resilience because it is malleable. While its base components—lettuce, tomato, ground meat, and bread—are simple and cheap, it has thrived because of how adaptable it is to change. This has proven particularly important as of late, as the enthusiasm for chains like Shake Shack has supplanted the long-held allegiance to less shiny establishments like McDonald's. More expensive versions of the hamburger, meanwhile, have become staples on restaurant menus, incorporating different meats and adding pricier accoutrements. In Fresco's words:
The history of the hamburger is the story of a continual quest to reinvent a food item by sophisticated means, leaving the end product apparently unchanged and therefore completely dependable for the consumer while almost invisible introducing one innovation after another.
Vegetarians and non-beef eaters, can likely attest. They, have found themselves with a plethora of alternatives to satisfy their hamburger cravings.
Perhaps the most important selling point for hamburgers, however, at least today, is that they require little time to make and eat. They are convenient. And that convenience is about as appreciated as it ever has been. "Convenience is the one thing that’s really changing trends these days," Howard Telford, an industry analyst at market research firm Euromonitor, said last year.
This is true in the United States, where people gladly drink crappier but more efficient coffee, shun breakfast foods that require even the most modest forms of clean-up, and increasingly rely on delivery. But it's also true in France, where a tradition of long, drawn out meals appears to be dissipating. Forty years ago, the French spent an average of roughly an hour and twenty minutes on each meal, but today that's down to less than half an hour, according to data from French food consultancy Gira Conseil.
No matter the reason, the resilience of the hamburger is something to behold. If not because the otherwise unremarkable American creation has earned the appreciation of one of the most storied culinary cultures there are, then because of this, a tidbit I've left only for plate cleaners like myself: the hamburger has not only given life to itself, but also to the french fry. Per capita consumption of french fries (as measured in servings), is very nearly the same as hamburger consumption per capita for the countries listed above. A coincidence? I think not.