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.

Go deeper

Transcripts show George Floyd told police "I can't breathe" over 20 times

Photo: Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Newly released transcripts of bodycam footage from the Minneapolis Police Department show that George Floyd told officers he could not breathe more than 20 times in the moments leading up to his death.

Why it matters: Floyd's killing sparked a national wave of Black Lives Matter protests and an ongoing reckoning over systemic racism in the United States. The transcripts "offer one the most thorough and dramatic accounts" before Floyd's death, The New York Times writes.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 6 p.m. ET: 11,921,616 — Total deaths: 546,318 — Total recoveries — 6,506,408Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 6 p.m. ET: 3,035,231 — Total deaths: 132,042 — Total recoveries: 936,476 — Total tested: 36,878,106Map.
  3. Public health: Deaths are rising in hotspots — Déjà vu sets in as testing issues rise and PPE dwindles.
  4. Travel: United warns employees it may furlough 45% of U.S. workforce How the pandemic changed mobility habits, by state.
  5. Education: New York City schools will not fully reopen in fallHarvard and MIT sue Trump administration over rule barring foreign students from online classes.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: A misinformation "infodemic" is here.
2 hours ago - Health

Fighting the coronavirus infodemic

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An "infodemic" of misinformation and disinformation has helped cripple the response to the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: High-powered social media accelerates the spread of lies and political polarization that motivates people to believe them. Unless the public health sphere can effectively counter misinformation, not even an effective vaccine may be enough to end the pandemic.