May 9, 2019

The future of the burger

In 1925, two actresses eating burgers on the beach

Actresses Dorothy Sebastian and Joan Crawford, 1925. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty

From every direction, the underpinnings of everyday life are under challenge — from the jobs Americans once held, to the allies we once embraced, to the decorum we tightly observed. Now, it's the hamburger — the very-nearly patriotic staple of every childhood and backyard barbecue — that's under threat.

What's happening: Last week, McDonald's became the latest major fast-food chain to serve plant-based burgers, saying it will test the "Big Vegan TS" in Germany. By the end of the year, such non-meat burgers will be in 7,200 Burger Kings, 1,000 Carl's Jrs., and hundreds of other fast-food joints.

  • That's a lot of "imposter" burgers, as George Motz, one of the world's premier hamburger experts, calls the boom in laboratory-invented burgers. "If the next generation embraces these 100%, we will lose a sense of what a real burger should be. They are getting away from the real thing."

The big picture: The hamburger goes back to a surge of German immigrants in the 1800s. When they arrived in the U.S., they brought with them a standard cuisine — chopped meat on a plate, with gravy. In the U.S., it morphed into the Hamburg Steak, a meatball-size dollop of beef between two slices of bread.

  • In the decades since, each state and region of the country has made its own twist on the burger. Similar adjustments have happened as the burger has traveled to seemingly every country in the world.
  • Now, the international community is embracing the gourmet burger at places like Smashburger, Shake Shack and Five Guys.

It may seem like people are eating less and less red meat, but that impression holds only if you compare now with the hamburger's peak years. Beef-eating crashed along with the U.S. economy starting in 2008, but has picked up fitfully year by year and is back up to the equivalent of 229 burgers a year, or 4.4 burgers a week, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. It's a global phenomenon — from 2007-2017, the world consumed an average of 1.9% more meat each year, the Economist reports.

The somewhat jarring arrival of faux beef burgers is part of an unlikely shakeup of the country's cultural bedrock:

  • There is a potential shift away from gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs to quiet electrics.
  • American football — versus the international version — is losing its cachet, as teens — their parents worried about permanent injury — drop the sport. More broadly, we have seen the near-demise of the traditional pickup game of basketball (along with street baseball and touch football).
  • "Americans are intensely proud of their hamburger heritage. It's one of the only American food inventions in the last 100 years," Motz tells Axios. "Now we have invented the fake hamburger."

The burger is bigger than you might think: Motz, a Brooklyn filmmaker, has built a new globe-trotting career around his expertise with hamburgers, including a movie and four books (last year, he published "Hamburger America").

  • Brazilians, he says, are absolutely crazy about burgers — he says he is soon traveling to Sao Paolo to demonstrate how to grill a better burger. Then he is on his way to do the same in Copenhagen and Paris, where he is to appear at Holybelly, a diner. "I have more Instagram followers in Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo than in New York City."
  • In the U.S., journalists are positioning the burger in the long culture war, with Republicans placing themselves on the side of beef-eating and suggesting that Democrats "want to kill all the cows." In February, Sebastian Gorka, the acerbic former Trump administration official, equated such thoughts with Stalinism.

Motz feels certain that, even if faux beef is taken up by lots of Americans, it will be only when they feel guilty for environmental reasons, such as the contribution of cows to climate change.

  • Even millennials, the killers of mayonnaise, cheddar cheese and other American staples of bad eating, haven't — and won't — abandon the burger, he is certain.
  • "Millennials require not just food but a story behind it. They have to have context." Such as nostalgia, which the burger has.
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