A few years ago, I decided that it would be interesting to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Not just regular “from scratch,” but really from scratch. Like, I’d make the buns, I’d make the mustard, I’d grow the tomatoes, I’d grow the lettuce, I’d grow the onion, I’d grind the beef, make the cheese, etc.
It didn’t happen that summer, by the following summer, my wife and I had built a new house, started raising chickens, and established a pretty good-sized garden. I realized that my prior plan hadn’t been ambitious enough—that wasn’t really from scratch. In fact, to make the buns, I’d need to grind my own wheat, collect my own eggs, and make my own butter. And I’d really need to raise the cow myself (or sheep, and make lamb burgers), mine or extract from seawater my own salt, grow my own mustard plant, etc. This past summer, revisiting the idea, I realized yet again that I was insufficiently ambitious. I’d really need to plant and harvest the wheat, raise a cow to produce the milk for the butter, raise another cow to slaughter for its rennet to make the cheese, and personally slaughter and process the cow or sheep. At this point I was thinking that this might all add up to an interesting book, and started to consider seriously the undertaking.
Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.
A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.
* * *
The weekend before Thanksgiving, my wife and I had some friends and family members over to the house to slaughter turkeys. We’d raised eight of them from poults, letting them free range around our land for most of their lives, and their time had come. It took the bulk of the day to slit their throats, bleed them out, pluck them, gut them, and put them on ice. Everybody got to take home a turkey that, by all accounts, was delicious. (Nearly everybody has already asked us to do this again next year.) Accompanied by cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and apple pie, it was a meal that could have been produced almost entirely at our home (and very nearly was). There was no mining of salt, of course, but it proved to be a meal that made sense for the place and the time. It’s really the only such ritual meal in the U.S. for which that’s true.
The Pilgrims established this standard, although in their case they probably had their meal in early October. The Thanksgiving menu at Plymouth Plantation was described by William Bradford:
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.
There’s some fundamental good in eating honestly, I think. Of knowing where your food comes from—raising it yourself, when you can—and trying to eat foods that could theoretically have existed a century ago. But you can’t take that but so far, or else the whole thing breaks down. As Carl Sagan wrote in Cosmos, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
I make my burgers from wild venison. There’s a third of your livestock problem solved right there. Lettuce and tomato are optional anyhow. Grow mustard and wheat. Maybe raise a goat to milk and make cheese from. Use wild thistle in place of rennet for the cheese. This can be done more easily than you describe.
By the way, the best burger I ever had in my life was made from wild Canada goose:
It’s the “I, Pencil” of cheeseburgers!
I’d never heard of “I, Pencil,” but, yes, that’s perfect!
We like to get our food as close to home as possible, raising quite a bit, getting a lot from local farmers at the market or directly, and finally sourcing the rest from elsewhere, though I try to draw the line so as not to go beyond North America. (That said, I have not been able to find a nice butter made from grass fed cows unless going as far as Ireland. Any suggestions for something closer to home?)
For Thanksgiving, we try to up the ante and serve food and wine that has been produced within a 50 mile radius. It is surprisingly easy to do, though more expensive for sure when you have to pay $4 or more per pound for a turkey. Next year I am definitely going to try raising my own turkeys as I am hoping to up the ante still further and serve mostly food from my own farm for the meal. Wine will still have to come from the neighbor’s pressing, and the wheat will be interesting, but I think can handle the rest. We may have to forgo the cranberries, though…
U MEEN I CANT HAS CHEEZBURGER?
I believe tomatoes can be had anywhere from mid summer to the first frost, depending on the variety. All other ingredients could be prepped ahead of time to some degree and frozen. Although that is a recent luxury, it would not be cheating.
Don’t forget growing some kind of fruit or grain to make vinegar for the mustard.
If you still think it isn’t ambitious enough, you could also domesticate new wheat, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard species from wild species. :-P
I enjoy the plastic taste of my processed, frozen food. But I would pay huge amounts of money to eat your home-made (literally) food!
Your basic problem here is that you’re trying to cover a range of taskss and food sources that few people could have done even in colonial times. Humans do not normally live on single farms in the midst of a howling desert! From ancient times, they’ve been prone to specialize in particular products or tasks, then trade with their neighbors.
The folks down by the meadow have cows; one of them slaughtered an extra one, and trades or sells the meat. Another kept an extra milk cow, because his wife’s pretty good at making cheese (which stores through the year — that’s what it’s *for*). Both of them get grain from the farmers who planted extra fields, and all of them take their grain to the miller down by the river to have it ground.
None of this is exclusive (after all, a cow can pull a plow too, and graze on a fallow field), and probably most folks had their own chickens and a truck garden, but the vagaries of agriculture mean that there’s usually somebody with a surplus of X, and usually someone else willing to trade X for Y. And then there’s the folks living in town, who are happy to buy extra eggs and milk, while selling the stuff they make (tools, clothing…) or transport from other areas.
That “first Thanksgiving” was notable in large part not merely because it was a “first harvest”, but because it meant that the colony as a whole had gotten all their supplies in order, and established that they had a decent chance of surviving the winter.
Well said David! It takes a community to do most things, including sourcing the ingredients for a cheeseburger. :)
This reminds me of http://ruhlman.com/2009/06/blt-from-scratchsummertime-challenge/ http://ruhlman.com/2009/08/blt-challenge-update/ http://ruhlman.com/2009/09/my-blt-from-scratch/ http://ruhlman.com/2009/09/blt-from-scratch-the-winners/
In Pennsylvania, we always had early crops of lettuce (say, through the end of June, usually). In a really good year, the lettuce hasn’t quite gone bitter when the first tomatoes pink up.
If our education presented this kind of challenge to children we may have a hope of them understanding that society is defined by what it can produce and the ingredients, such as organization, culture, resources, tools… it uses to do it. Many societies are very limited in what they can produce while ours is limited in what it wants to produce because we seek to produce by a high gross margin corporate approach. Second element of society is to distribute what it produced. We distribute chunk of wealth to the general power structure and institutions which protect it, such as military, ivy’s. The 1% who hoard wealth then endow it around, are now substantially different than let say in the 19th century, because our resources, markets and labor have become global and so to protect our power structure means to have international focus. So, nearly everything and anything we can buy in USA is impossible to recreate within a small social group, whether they are generalists or specialists. Some small exceptions exist, Amish etc.
American society is a global one. Most of our citizens are detached form meaningful production and social contribution to their local community, even to their own children’s education. Hence we are profoundly alienated.
Cooking from scratch as we do in Pilgrims tradition reminds us of times when that wasn’t the case.
Your leap from the impracticality of a single person simultaneously producing all the ingredients to make a cheeseburger from scratch to the assertion that a cheesebuger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society is way off the mark. Your suggestions that tomatoes, lettuce, beef, cheese and butter not being freshly available simultaneously is simply wrong. Producing all the components solo would be difficult and wildly expensive but that’s a stunt and has nothing to do with availability of the fresh ingredients. Moreover the invention and availability of cheeseburgers doesn’t say much if anything about the availability of fresh ingredients required to make it. David Harmon’s point above is right on.
I’m not saying that a time-traveler with unlimited funds couldn’t coax something cheeseburger-like into existence in 1650 CE. I’m saying that it’s so completely impractical (see the title) that it wouldn’t—and, indeed, didn’t—happen. It would be an utterly illogical food. For instance, slaughtering a cow in the summer would get you branded as a fool, because not only was refrigeration not available *, but because there’s still lots of grass available for grazing, meaning that there’s still more free input available to produce more meat at a near-zero cost. Anybody who wants to make a meal “from scratch” in this hard-core sense would do far better making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, a meal that could have existed—and, indeed, did—in 1650 CE.
* Which reminds me of an old joke. A man is visiting a neighboring farm when he spies a pig with a peg leg. He asks the farmer what happened to the pig. The farmer tells a long story about how the pig once saved his life, dragging the farmer out of his burning home. The neighbor asks if perhaps the pig lost his leg in the daring rescue. “Oh, no,” replies the farmer, “I roasted his leg a few months back. A pig like this, you don’t eat all at once!”
On the impracticality of a computer:
Let’s be honest. You just performed an experiment in the blatantly obvious, and your method of reporting the results either completely contradicts your conclusion, or it demonstrates that your suggestion of “fundamental good” is very much begging the question.
It’s nothing personal. Just because it is obvious doesn’t mean it had even occurred to me before. And it doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. But this is emblematic, to me, of the weaker aspects of the modern “local food” movement.
Waldo — I’ve often wondered about butchering schedules pre-refrigeration. I mean, presumably people ate fresh meat in the summer, but the concerns you outlined would also be an issue. Would people just cut up a cow and sell most of it? Am I simply overestimating the meat consumption in the, say, 18th century? Did they just eat salted beef all summer?
Well, the tomato/lettuce problem is totally moot, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, but otherwise this is very interesting!
Great article, and most of it is valid, but the following is simply not true: “Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in the fall. Mammals are slaughtered in early winter.”
Tomatoes can be grown and harvest in summer, fall, and even early winter if you live in a warm climate. This is also true of lettuce. Additionally, greenhouses would provide near year-round growth.
As far as mammal meat goes, I know a number of local pig and cow farms who slaughter throughout the summer. (You can see in this table “http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/LiveSlauSu/LiveSlauSu-04-25-2011.txt” that live weight by month actually goes down over the summer, and not up, as you suggest. The peak month of weight is in March)
The real reason that cheeseburgers did not appear before the late 19th century had more to do with the invention of meat grinders (it’s pretty pointless to mince meat by hand unless you’re making sausage) and the invention of the sandwich (which, let’s face it, is only good because it’s portable and compact).
Quick correction to the above comment: The peak times for cattle weight are March, August, and December, but the variation is not that great. Apologies.
Agrarian societies do not involve a single farm run by an individualist landlord and his intellectual explorations :p
Also there was a large trade in ice (merchant ships would head towards the far north in the summer and carve blocks of ice, it was said that you could easily fetch a handsome profit even if you lost half the blocks coming back to the summer region).
Just move to Missouri. I was picking tomatoes until November this year.
“It would be an utterly illogical food. For instance, slaughtering a cow in the summer would get you branded as a fool, because not only was refrigeration not available *, but because there’s still lots of grass available for grazing, meaning that there’s still more free input available to produce more meat at a near-zero cost.”
That’s not how actual communities operate. In the ancient Mediterranean, you would certainly slaughter cattle in the summer as you would need to sacrifice to various deities on the appropriate festival days. Not doing so would cost you a lot more than “free input” — it would result in the punishment of your community by the gods. Lack of refrigeration wouldn’t be a problem, as the meat would be doled out among the citizens and everyone would take home a joint.
Glass was wildly expensive until just about a century ago. Greenhouses were only for the very wealthy until very recently. You’d have a tough time growing many types of lettuce in the summer in a warm climate, because it’ll bolt. I mean, you’ll grow it, but you wouldn’t want to eat it. :)
That’s because refrigeration exists now. (A refrigerator is another product that couldn’t have existed until relatively recently, not coincidentally.)
You bet—and that’s why it was so expensive. As I said, producing such a product would have required shipping key components vast distances, and this is a great example of just one such product. Something else they would do is tow icebergs. They’d lash ’em onto a ship and pull the whole thing into a harbor, where they could carve off chunks and sell them right at the port!
Absolutely, but the meat grinder did not exist, cheese (as we know it for the purpose of burgers) did not exist, and the tomato was a new world food. On the other hand, they did have mustard, since it was invented by the Romans, so they had that going for them.
Many of these problems could have been overcome in specific places at specific times, but overcoming all of them would have resulted in a totally impractical food that would have made no sense.
This is currently (12/5/2011, 18:07) the 23rd story on the first page of Reddit. Way to go!
We harvested tomatoes and peppers into Nov this year, not an unusual occurrence.
Also, the storage of meat or other perishables was accomplished in some places by caves and other such places (the root cellar).
Were they any good? We had some until November, but they were pretty rough, and just never ripened. We just fed them to the turkeys and chickens. (The ducks can’t seem to break into them with their rounded little bills. :)
Caves—interesting! I never knew about that. It makes sense, since they’re certainly cool.
Who puts mustard on burger? Everyone knows that mustard goes on hot dog.
Where on earth did you get the idea that animals were slaughtered exclusively or even largely in the fall? Much of the planet doesn’t -have- a cold season, and I assure you they’re not all vegans in the tropics.
You don’t need refrigeration to slaughter a cow at any time of the year.
You just need enough people to eat the meat before it goes bad. Which, unless you’re living alone in a wilderness, is not a problem.
The way small farmers usually managed it was to have a circle of neighbors who would kill at intervals and share out the resulting carcass.
Pigs were often slaughtered in the fall because they were used to make preserved (pickled, smoked, salted) meats, but even that wasn’t strictly necessary and they were killed for fresh pork year-round.
On a big estate, the same thing would happen, but directed by the landlord or his agents.
This article depends on a straw-man, false-alternative argument; the underlying assumption is that the alternative to a post-industrial economy is one of isolated subsistence farmers each surrounded by wilderness and doing everything themselves.
In fact, preindustrial farmers usually lived in villages or near them and had a dense network of local exchange and specialization. They didn’t make their own salt, they bought it from merchants. They didn’t grind their own wheat, they took their grain to a mill and paid the miller with a share of the grist.
Usually they didn’t make many of their own tools, either, and they shared, swapped and sold processed foodstuffs and labor around to even things out. Division of labor is not a recent concept.
Each of the subsidiary arguments is false too. Cheese is a very old foodstuff and was stored for years at a time. Onions lasted over from one harvest to the next; kitchens had net bags of them hung from the rafters and there would be a barrel in the cellar. Anyone who has flour for bread can make buns. Mustard has been around for aeons, ditto butter and mayonaise (or local equivalents).
Tomatoes and lettuce are avaliable in broadly overlapping periods in most areas with a reasonable growing season.
And, of course, meat grinders are not exaclty high tech. Various types have been around for a long time.
Thomas Jefferson could have had a cheeseburger, if someone had supplied a recipie. All he’d have to do would be direct the cook the first time.
It’s no more complex or difficult than a ham-and-cheese sandwich, which it rather resembles.
Note: hamburger is essentially sausage meat without a casing.
It is (and always has been) a useful way to prepare meat because it’s economical and provides a use for scraps and other odds and ends. It’s also a way to make tough cuts palatable.
Something else they would do is tow icebergs. They’d lash ‘em onto a ship and pull the whole thing into a harbor, where they could carve off chunks and sell them right at the port!
I am very very sceptical about this assertion. Yes, there was a big trade in ice: it was profitable to ship ice from New England lakes to Calcutta in the 19th century. But I would be willing to bet that no one, ever, before the invention of refrigeration, towed an iceberg into harbour and tried to sell bits of it. The maths just doesn’t work.
You’ve been picked up by The Browser! http://thebrowser.com/
I have no idea how far back the practice goes (whether it extends to pre-refrigeration), I just know that it’s a thing that exists. :) There’s even a business now in shooting icebergs with shotgun slugs, harvesting the ice chunks in barrels, hauling it into port, and selling it to bottled water companies. Oh, and I just remembered something, a famous prank in the seventies. An Australian businessman announced that he was going to tow in a ‘berg and sell the ice per-cube. The guy actually did it—people stood at the harbor watching it get towed in—only to discover, when it started raining, that it was actually a pile of tarps covered in some kind of white foam.
I’m done re-explaining the point that a cheeseburger would have been wildly impractical —not completely impossible—up until about a century ago. That’s why I titled it “On the impracticality of a cheeseburger,” so there’d be no confusion. Some people just like to be confused, I guess.
But you’re wrong. Meat and melty cheese on bread was wildly common, and minced meat really wasn’t that uncommon even outside of harvest time if you liked to add fillers and spices. (Meatloaf is a medieval dish, don’t forget.) Lettuce and cabbage in various forms were also common ingredients of wrapped meat, and lettuce’s additional uses as a sleep and tummy aid guaranteed that people kept batches growing from spring to fall. Buns and rolls were also hugely common. (The only thing about sandwiches that was invented recently was the name of fashionable Lord Sandwich getting attached to a peasant food.) Mustard is of course an ancient and well-loved condiment for roast beef in Europe, and was a natural for beef in any form.
The only difficult ingredient is tomato. New World vegetable, plus the whole reputation of being a nightshade relative. And catsup, because it not only included tomato but was inspired by Chinese cuisine.
You’re agreeing with me, Maureen. :) Nobody is questioning that many of the components of a cheeseburger have existed for a long time. The problem would have been bringing all of the basic parts that comprise the cheeseburger in the same place at the same time. It would have been a foolish food, because it is a food of its time. Ketchup, of course, is one of those ingredients, and tomato is another. As I wrote, even such a theoretical cheeseburger “would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients.”
Thomas Thwaites has written quite a similar book called the ‘Toaster Project’. It involved trying to create a toaster from scratch, including mining the minerals: http://www.thetoasterproject.org/
He had quite an entertaining talk on TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_thwaites_how_i_built_a_toaster_from_scratch.html
I have enjoyed both this article and the subsequent comments for days, and figured it was time for me to weigh in. First, Waldo, thank you for the Thanksgiving turkey. For the past several years, we have purchased only organic and locally-grown turkeys, but it was enlightening to be so much closer to the process this year.
I completely accept the basic premise of your article and I appreciate the thought you put into it. I think it also a worthwhile exercise that others have come along and nit-picked at some of the details. A meat-and-cheese hot sandwich was surely a staple of peasant farmers millenia before the Earl of Sandwich had the brilliant idea of asking for one during a poker game (or such is the myth, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandwich#Etymology).
On that topic, also according to Wikipedia, the first printed American menu which listed hamburger was an 1826 menu from Delmonico’s in New York: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamburger#Restaurant_menus
Personally, I don’t put tomatoes in my cheeseburgers, so mine is imminently more practical.
Lettuce can be picked anytime, it takes only 2 months or so from seed to leaf. It will even grow in the winter. Animals are slaughtered whenever, it takes longer for a goat to mature than a sheep, longer for a cow than a goat, so there’s a rolling schedule for slaughter especially if the births are also staggered ( lambs come in Dec-Jan, goats kid in Feb-March, cows calve all year..)
PS. No real farmer I have ever met ever uses the word fallow
“cheese (as we know it for the purpose of burgers) did not exist”
Cheddar has been produced since at least the 12th century.
“For instance, slaughtering a cow in the summer would get you branded as a fool, because not only was refrigeration not available *, but because there’s still lots of grass available for grazing, meaning that there’s still more free input available to produce more meat at a near-zero cost. ”
And this shows just how little you know about farming. Lots of grass? Usually a farm uses up all the grass, there is not any extra. That is a reason an animal might be butchered in summer, too many animals, not enough grass. It is not an unlimited supply. Here in Ca the grass quits growing in June. That’s when most animals are shipped.
Do you think that an entire years worth of meat was put up in the fall? Do you know anything about indigenous people who still live without refrigeration and eat meat?
BTW, and just as an aside, the overwhelming majority of the energy costs of most people’s food comes from their domestic refrigerator. Those are energy hogs because refrigeration has massive economies of scale.
All the other costs — growing, processing and shipping combined — are considerably less.
In other words, the energy cost and carbon output of shipping tomatoes from California to Massachusetts is trivial compared to that of keeping them in the household fridge, because of the extremely low efficiency of that device. Hence there’s no significant difference in your footprint if you buy them at the local farmer’s market.
The only real argument for eating locally grown produce is that it often tastes better. All else is vanity. Eating locally is simply a personal indulgence by the affluent.
I personally call locavores the “starve a third world peasant to death” movement.
Tomatoes are not kept “…in the household fridge”. The optimum temperature for storing tomatoes is 59 degrees F.
I am not affluent, yet I eat local because I choose to, including the extensive garden I keep. There is no vanity in eating produce from the garden as opposed to going to grocery store. The savings is calculable.
S.M. Stifling — I would really like to see some reputable and verifiable data to back up your assertion.
“The ancient Mediterranean” was markedly prior to the 12th century, Martha.
Lettuce is a cool-weather crop. You can pick it at any time, but you certainly wouldn’t want to eat it, because warm weather makes it bitter.
Depends on the age and the place. Remember, Martha, we’re taking the long view here. Often, livestock has been left to graze on wild grasses until they’re ready for slaughter, such as on the American prairie (filling the former ecological niche of buffalo). This has been done and continues to be done throughout the Americas and Australia. (I don’t know they do it elsewhere.) It’s from this practice that have the whole concept of the tragedy of the commons.
In some cultures, sure, but I have no reason to believe that was a universal practice. Fall was a mighty good time to slaughter, since the meat could be frozen without cost. And I know that putting up hay is a lot of work. If you’re going to slaughter a cow, might as well do it when the grazing grass runs out.
Cork had an enormous cattle market, for instance, as David Dickson wrote about in “Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630–1830”:
“In 1711 a plot of ground in the north suburbs already in use as a cattle market was enlarged, and about this time a daily cattle market during the autumn cattle season commenced.”
Ireland, too, as Edward Wakefield wrote in his 1812 “Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political”:
“The slaughtering season commences early in September, after which the Meath graziers rely chiefly on the northern buyers, because they are exempted from the charges of commission, driving, &c. which are taxes that fall exceedingly heavy on their profits. […] [T]here can be little encouragement for winter grazing in a country where…there is little consumption of meat, and where exportation requires beef only at a certain season of the year. […] The recommendation of stall feeding as a matter of profit is almost ridiculous; a grazier can make very little buy it, and if he intends to turn his cattle out again in the spring, he will find that he has adopted a very bad trade.”
The author went on to explain that beef would fetch the highest price in summer because, of course, it was scarce then.
I know they ain’t eatin’ cheeseburgers.
Uh. OK. That’s random. I’ll take a shot at this, too:
P.S. No real programmer I have ever met uses the word “rascally.” Only simulated programmers.
Incidentally, “mammals” is too broad of a category to describe seasonality of slaughtering. I’d been thinking of big things (cows, horses, oxen, hogs), but smaller creatures (rabbits, sheep, goats) are slaughtered at different times of the year, either for reasons of breeding or because it doesn’t matter when in the year it’s done. Figuring that people will know I’m not referring to giraffes or blue whales, I’ve changed it to “large mammals.”
Waldo, could you explain that again in different words with the points you made at different places than last time?
I am dense, or don’t have the ability to take what you say and apply it to similar situations/outcomes.
Thanks a bunch.
“You’re agreeing with me, Maureen. :)”
I am curious how you get from Maureen’s pointing out that the ingredients were widely and readily available to its being impressively impractical to bring them together. This is before we even get to the bizarre suggestion that ketchup is a core ingredient of a cheeseburger.
I realized what complete baloney this post was when I got to “Mammals are slaughtered in early winter.” Does this guy seriously think our ancestors went just went without meat for 3 seasons of the year?
Wait, our ancestors ate baloney?
Via Chris Wolverton comes this 2008 study about the origins of the Big Mac’s ingredients:
The Big Mac is made out of ingredients from Turkey, Indian, the Mediterranean, Mexico, India, China, New Guinea, and Southeast Asia. Wow!
Best post here in a long time, and an interesting read…despite (or maybe because?) it being very nearly 100% wrong.
You never disappoint, IP. :)
I can see now that I’m going to have to write another blog entry debunking this wholly inaccurate meme that the cheeseburger was “impossible” until recently, as most links to this claim. No, not impossible. Just utterly impractical and, to provide the selection of toppings that one expects, quite nearly impossible, tomatoes being a new-world food. But it could have been done—things cheeseburger-like could have been created—but from what I’ve read, I suspect it would have gone rather like Arthur Dent’s efforts to get a good cup of tea.
“A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society.” And that’s why we live in a highly developed, post-agrarian society, and what’s wrong with that?
“it proved to be a meal that made sense for the place and the time. It’s really the only such ritual meal in the U.S. for which that’s true.”
I’d argue that a traditional New England clambake also meets those criteria. Catch your own clams, lobsters, crabs, what have you. Harvest your potatoes and corn (this is why it’s a late summer thing). Pick your sage, parsley, whatever else. Easy enough!
That said, really good post!
Grew up on a farm of a few thousand acres in California, and a plurality of my friends and family are professional farmers or work in an agricultural “field” (hyuck hyuck). I even went to school at one time to study crop science.
The point being that I feel qualified to state unequivocally that at least some farmers use the word fallow.
And that it’d be a goddamn pain in the ass to make a cheeseburger from scratch.
Great point, Noah! I’d be interested to hear from folks about other traditional, regional, seasonal meals. New Orleans, of all places, should have something like this.
I just stumbled across a blog entry that I wrote here seven years ago, my review of the “Banquet Hearty One Boneless Pork Rib with Mashed Potatoes and Corn” entitled “My caecum hurts.” I think it makes a pleasantly ironic contrast with this one.
The large, unsaid assumption of point of view that validates your argument:
You are talking about a post-industrial commercial fast food purchased cheeseburger. That is the ‘cheeseburger’ you refer to.
Of course it would have been impractical to make a post-industrial fast food style purchased cheeseburger, on a whim.
However, it was not impractical to make sandwiches containing all the ingredients you listed (a cheeseburger). Depending on the season, and place you desired a sandwich, perhaps it would be expensive to get ALL the desired ingredients, but the base (bread, meat, & cheese) is available year round.
The distinction between your modern-day global-sourced, mass produced, cheeseburger sold in a store that sells you and thousands of people a burger every day…
and a sandwich of sorts (a cheeseburger), makes all the difference in the world.
So basically what you’re saying here is that over the course of a period of time you repeatedly found it necessary to refine your definition of “from scratch.” If you end up saying (per the Sagan example) “How do I obtain an apple but from the tree, and how do I obtain the tree but from the seed, and how do I obtain the seed but from the apple?” you end up with the classic chicken-egg question, and you must conclude that yes, the apple pie from scratch is, indeed, impossible.
You took what seemed initially to be a relatively pedestrian project – a from-scratch cheeseburger, and ended up concluding that you’d have to create the universe to do it. You’ve gone existential on us.
Wow Waldo, I saw this cheeseburger post float through the nerdery of my G+ science stream.
Catholic Polish people (and other Eastern European countries around Poland) have a traditional Christmas meal called the Wigilia. (I’ve never known anyone who has had carp at their meal.) But it’s a meal tradition based on local seasonal foods. Still celebrated in parts of Chicago and Detroit (large Polish populations) and I’m sure other places across the country.
Wow, Waldo. Andrew Sullivan linked to this. And you’ll love (not) that he said “cheeseburgers weren’t possible before the 20th century” before showing a part of your post. And it got the most FB “likes” of all his posts today.
This “cheeseburgers weren’t possible” thing is really taking off! ;-)
I don’t even buy that a cheeseburger was impractical, sure if you consider the investment necessary to produce a cheeseburger and ONLY a cheeseburger it seems impractical but if you simply want to produce a cheeseburger as a food product from the food you are already producing on a typical 18th or 19th century farm in normal course you absolutely could. My great grand-parents for example, pre-internal combustion, ran a farm that raised pigs, chickens, beef and dairy cattle and working horses, they grew grain and forage, had an orchard and a kitchen garden, OK technically they didn’t grow mustard as a crop but they could have, it was grown as a crop in the area at one point. Now I’m not saying there weren’t external dependencies they obviously had to buy machinery and seeds and animals and building materials and tools and although there was an icehouse on the property the ice was brought in from a lake miles away but it’s not like the ingredients necessary to make a cheeseburger weren’t produced on family farms, it’s just nobody thought to put them together in the form of a cheeseburger.
Isn’t one of the most beautiful things about human civilisation the fact that we do not have to start from scratch and can cooperatively build up on the efforts of our friends and our ancestors?
If you really want to make something “from scratch”, you would have to imagine yourself as you would be naked, ignorant, and alone in the savannah. How would you even slay the cow (need to smelt and forge metal), grind and cook the meat (so, I assume, electricity), ensure sanitary conditions, etc.
I know we are all becoming increasingly frustrated with abstraction, dematerialisation, and complexity, but I think only because we are more aware of it these days.
The short text says (google translate from French):
Short film in which I make a sandwich “ham and butter.” The grain of wheat sown to bread, pork with ham, butter cow, I take the place of the usual artisans whenever possible.
No dialogue or music added, gradually tighten the narrative on the sandwich, from one stream to another.
The heart of each action is shown by a camera mounted on a pair of glasses that I wear constantly.
To all of you who have showed up in the comments section to insist that making a cheeseburger from scratch, on your own, having produced all of the ingredients yourself, is perfectly practical: I challenge any of you to actually do it.
Go ahead. If its so easy, go do it and take pictures and write up a blog entry about how easy it was. I hear a lot of talk and see very little action.
The American Cheese in a cheeseburger is not ‘cheese,’ it’s processed cheese food.
It’s like sliced Velveeta, not like sliced Cheddar.
Most ingredients in American cheezburgers are not real food. Rather they are food analogues. Created by marketing people rather than nutritional experts to make money with little regard to the health consequences of obesity and cancer. American greed feeds on American greed. Let Americans eat crap if they want. If you care about quality move to Europe or Asia. If you want to be fat, ugly and dumb stay in America.
Around the Wachusett Reservoir in Central Massachusetts you can find delicious cranberries growing wild, free for the picking. We had local cranberry chutney and cranberry relish this past Thanksgiving along with a turkey born and raised locally as well.
Waldo, I don’t understand why you are disclaiming what you wrote. You claim you didn’t say it was impossible for a cheeseburger to exist, just impractical. But a direct quote from your article is the following:
> “A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society.”
You didn’t write that it was difficult to make a cheeseburger outside of those conditions – you said it CANNOT exist. If it can’t exist, then it must be impossible.
So, why did you write that sentence if it’s not actually what you meant?
A very interesting and challenging problem to be sure. One that McDonalds corporation faced when it ventured to open a restaurant in Moscow, Russia.
An entire agriculture supply chain was created from scratch over a year ahead of time. The Russian farmers had to be taught the techniques to cultivate the “new” produce – russet potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes, wheat for the buns. Every element mentioned in the article, and more, was established locally.
Not the universe, but a country!
This was Adam Smith’s fundamental insight about industrial production, no? Many people working together, each breaking the process apart into simple steps, can cheaply mass-produce items that would be difficult and expensive at best to make individually by hand.
The classic example is the pencil. They’re produced by the billions, if not trillions — so cheaply that they can be given away, but I think it’s safe to say it would be literally impossible for one single person to make one single pencil, if they were to start *entirely* with raw materials found in nature.
Because I meant it within the context of what I’d written in the prior few hundred words, not to stand on its own, and because I write for my audience of a few thousand regulars that I’ve built up in sixteen years of blogging, who quite understand what I mean, and not for 40,000 strangers.
> “Because I meant it within the context of what I’d written in the prior few hundred words, not to stand on its own,”
But it doesn’t even work in that context. Neither does your headline stand up, because a cheeseburger was not even impractical in the time-frame you specify. It was perfectly practical, because people don’t create all the components of their food from scratch in the real world, and haven’t for hundreds of years.
You also say:
> “The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.”
But you talk about tomatoes being a new-world food, and thus unavailable. Last time I checked, America less than a century ago was definitely in the new-world and had ample tomatoes.
I don’t see how any kind of “context” makes your absolutist statements true. You don’t qualify them in any way. Technologies like *photography* were being developed over a century ago, and you write that a cheeseburger couldn’t have existed?
I don’t see what it says in your essay that means “cannot” should somehow be not taken to mean “cannot” and “couldn’t” not taken to mean “couldn’t.”
“The cheeseburger” and “A cheeseburger” are two very different things. The former is an ideal, a type of food from our cuisine which is reproduced across the world by families, factories, small restaurants, etc. It’s a cultural construct that could not exist if it were not practical.
“A cheeseburger” is a particular instance of a bun, a ground beef patty, some cheese, etc. that could exist outside of the culture that creates it. Again, a time traveler could construct a cheeseburger in the absence of refrigeration, modern farming, greenhouses, etc., but she couldn’t make it a staple in the diets of millions.
However, don’t let this stop you from arguing that Waldo clearly meant that it would be absolutely impossible for cheese, bun, and ground beef patty to meet before Dec 3rd, 1911.
What’s your point – trying to make a cheeseburger from scratch, or trying to make a cheeseburger from scratch the same way people X amount of years ago would have had to make one? This is more an exploration in tedium than food preparation.
Interesting article. Grocery store hamburger can come from a large number of cows from various processing plants, thanks to CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). I don’t eat mammals, but if I did, I would absolutely avoid ground up cows, not only because of the inhumane conditions at CAFOs and meat processing plants, but also because of the potential for disease-causing microbes in the product.
A cheeseburger might taste good, but it’s worth considering what went into it—literally and figuratively—before making it a part of one’s diet.
I’m a little offended that you didn’t include the pickle.
There’s a lot of goalpost moving going on, the original discussion was about the practicality of producing a cheeseburger from scratch using home resources and now were talking about reproducing the exact industrial product that some specific producers define as a cheeseburger.
It we boil it down the initial premise that it is impractical to produce a multiple ingredient food product using pre-industrial farming techniques when in point of fact producing all of the ingredients in such a product was well within the range of products made on a pre-industrial farm.
The initial premise is based on the same false leaps of logic that are behind the debunked myths that traditional farming techniques, if deployed widely across the world economy couldn’t feed 9 billion people.
It’s a true fact that you need industrial economies to produce complex industrial products like a toaster or a graphite pencil or a computer (examples chosen intentionally) but the basic food components of a cheeseburger: meat, cheese, wheat flour & vegetables are not complex products, they are simple products.
Great article. For some reason, I found myself reading that Pilgrim quote in the voice of Daniel Day Lewis character from There Will Be Blood…
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is tied to everything else in the universe.”
–John Muir (1838-1914) U. S. naturalist, explorer.
I feel a little like the original article has arbitrarily raised the stakes on what constitutes a “cheeseburger”. I think if you have got ground or chopped meat (probably beef) between two pieces of some sort of bread foodstuff, with cheese, then you basically have a cheeseburger. We can debate the relative merits of other condiments, but such could be swapped in or out or all around without changing the essential “cheeseburgeriness” of the construction — while omitting the bread, ground/chopped meat, or cheese pretty much rules out the possibility of having a “cheeseburger”, IMO. And I see no reason that bread and cheese could not be reasonably readily available to anyone equipped with ground/chopped meat. The cheeseburger may indeed require the Neolithic Revolution as a practical prerequisite, but I am not sure it necessarily requires “a highly developed, post-agrarian society” … unless we impose some extra (and perhaps questionable) rules that make it so.
See what you’ve done now, Waldo? (And I, too, love the fact that I.Pub. disagrees with you… it’s so perfect.)
You may indeed need to write a new post debunking the now growing meme that it would be impossible to make a cheeseburger on your own. Although that would be an amaaaazingly fascinating MythBusters episode.
I am astonished at how brutal these comments have been. I enjoyed this article. Now sure, if you align the moons and zap a few stars you might be able to make it happen, but by doing so we are deviating from the point. As he says in his article, it would be impractical, not impossible, sure it could be done, but it would be extremely difficult and incredibly impractical.
As many have pointed out you could search for special plants that harvest earlier or later in the season to help them ripen closer together, substitute various meats, etc. But this would take such extensive planning, and assuming that you wanted to eat the other 364 days of the year it may ruin other meals by so adamentely creating this cheeseburger.
What this author says is true, the cheeseburger would not have been realistically feasible until more modern times. Sure, it could have been done for someone with the life-goal of doing so, they could probably make it happen. But the time and resources required to do so is not practical for a single meal.
This article was extremely well written. I thank the author for taking time to compile these thoughts. I found it interesting and insightful.
It doesn’t matter—the food product itself remained foolishly impractical. All of the necessary components to make Michelangelo’s David existed for millennia (marble and chisels), but nobody did it, or anything vaguely close to it. Why? Because it would have been impractical at a time when people spent more time trying to survive than make art. A cheeseburger would have been a wild, bizarre indulgence until recently. The amount of time required, the amount of resources in the way of refrigeration and trade, would have made the food simply stupid and, as I said, wildly impractical.
Definitely not. By that criteria, a tuna melt is a cheeseburger. A barbecue sandwich with mozzarella (ugh) is a cheeseburger. Shawarma is a cheeseburger. If you went to a restaurant and ordered a cheeseburger, and you got a “chopped meat between two pieces of some sort of bread foodstuff, with cheese,” and nothing else, you’d be pissed off.
Funny you mention that, Michael—last night on Facebook, I suggested that I should do exactly that. :)
I am not sure that “nothing else” in addition to “chopped meat between two pieces of some sort of bread foodstuff, with cheese” as a cheeseburger would _necessarily_ piss me off. I not uncommonly make myself a “cheeseburger” that answers to pretty much that basic description. I do not think mustard, tomatoes, lettuce, or onion are defining constituents.
And, indeed, even some 20 years after eating it, I fondly remember a “cheeseburger” I got as takeaway from a little Lebanese restaurant’s lunch counter that probably walked a wavy line between “cheeseburger” and “shawarma” — but I was perfectly prepared to accept (and consume) it as it was marketed to me. :)
Perhaps, really, what contributes to uncertainty on the issues here is the lack of a clear definition about what does or does not constitute a “cheeseburger”. But, ultimately, the more complexity we require of such a definition, the more difficult achieving it will generally become. A “hawaiian” pizza and a “tomato/cheese” pizza may both be pizzas, but the former requires more resources to assemble than the latter; if we demand our definition comply with the requisites of the former, we necessarily raise the stakes.
I don’t disagree with the premise that putting all the ingredients stated in the article together is considerably easier in a relatively technologically advanced post-agarian society. Nor would I disagree that chopped meat and cheese in bread is a quite generic description — a better definition of how those ingredients (which I would however argue _are_ the defining ingredients of the “cheeseburger”) might be formed, appear, or assembled might perhaps be sought.
Nevertheless, I _am_ suggesting that pretty much anyone who chopped up some cow (or, being permissive, or similar sort of hoofed-animal) meat and had access to cheese-making and bread-making technology/ingredients could (if not necessarily would) make something that was pretty much the same as what I (emphasis, there) would consider a perfectly reasonable “cheeseburger”.
Interesting! Well, then you and I will just have to agree to define “cheeseburger” differently. In your case, congratulations, you have a much more easily created cheeseburger than the rest of us, who must suffer under the yoke of a complicated, modern, delicious sandwich. :)
Please don’t include the “rest of us” in your personal definition of a cheeseburger. I vote no tomato or lettuce on mine, and yes, it’s still a cheeseburger without those things. And no onions either. If I wanted a salad, I’d order a salad.
Very interesting article, I’m glad a friend linked on fb.
I do want to comment on the disclaimer you provide, which is as follows: “f you came here having been told that this is an article about how the cheeseburger was “impossible” until recently, please note that it is not. It is about how the cheeseburger as we know it today was an impractical food until relatively recently. (Ref: the title.) A time-traveler with unlimited resources could probably pull it off. –WJ”
However, your article indicates that it is, in fact, impossible: “The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.”
In addition, the statement in the disclaimer “A time-traveler with unlimited resources could probably pull it off” also indicates impossibility (unless you know of an ability to time travel and a person with unlimited resources, this particular action is so impractical as to be impossible).
Just pointing out the inconsistency – still enjoyed the “meat” of the article!
One fascinating article, followed by hundreds of comments indicating poor reading comprehension and axe-grinding. This, of course, would be impossible even twenty-five years ago without the invention of the Internet.
Wow, Waldo – it appears you have an inordinate quantity of really dumb friends / readers, who appear unable to know the difference between the words “impossible” and “impractical”.
Good article on your part, and much appreciated for what it set out to do – remind us that much of what we take for granted requires the complex interaction of global mercantile mechanisms, science and technological developments. Too bad that is lost on those who prefer to argue their own ignorance.
‘I make my burgers from wild venison. There’s a third of your livestock problem solved right there. Lettuce and tomato are optional anyhow. Grow mustard and wheat. Maybe raise a goat to milk and make cheese from. Use wild thistle in place of rennet for the cheese. This can be done more easily than you describe.’
There’s A cheeseburger, then there is Your cheeseburger. The article is about the standard.
Interesting read, but I’m an extremist when it comes to philosophy. Did you blow the glass for the baking dishes, or make the knives to dress the turkeys? According to your own article, your kitchen table is a modern convenience that could not have existed until recently. I think the downfall here is how you chose to define “scratch”.
Both of my grandfathers were dairy farmers who ate beef nearly every day. But I never saw either of them eat a hamburger, except in a restaurant. “Nuff said.
You are absolutely right about that, but I don’t want to diminish the value of Cheeseburgering Different®. One of the morals of the story here, I think, is that it doesn’t make sense to try to replicate a complicated food in the name of simplicity. The described wild venison burger makes a whole lot more sense than this convoluted thing I was trying to assemble. :)
This thread is why people use comment blockers. Pedants are just as annoying as trolls.
“One fascinating article, followed by hundreds of comments indicating poor reading comprehension and axe-grinding. This, of course, would be impossible even twenty-five years ago without the invention of the Internet.”
The level of spertardery in the comments is astounding.
Listen, you morons. Waldo didn’t say “impossible”. He said “impractical” which the same as “unlikely”. Maybe “impractical” was too big a word.
All of the necessary components to make Michelangelo’s David existed for millennia (marble and chisels), but nobody did it, or anything vaguely close to it. Why? Because it would have been impractical at a time when people spent more time trying to survive than make art.
Sorry, I must have confused you with someone who wasn’t a complete dolt. My mistake. Bye bye.
I believe in buying local. We also raised turkeys on our small farm this year, but we let the local Amish take care of the “processing”. I make my own buns, but I buy my ingredients from the coop. The local meat locker takes care of beef processing. My huge organic garden provides all the rest, and I did a lot freezing and processing. I don’t see self sufficiency as doing it all, just supporting local.
Jackson, I agree with you, but I don’t think that was Waldo’s point – or at least what I took away from it.
Your incarnation of the “cheeseburger” is certainly local, seasonal, and could be thrown together in a day with the right garden. But it supposes that you live in an area with Elk in abundance enough to feed you and that you’re not looking for a beef burger with cow’s milk cheddar cheese.
I think the larger point of the impracticality of the cheeseburger is that our entire culture (and its farming + distribution system) is built around an impractical item. Yours, in your circumstances, isn’t impractical, but also, isn’t really a “cheeseburger” in the sense that millions of Americans consume one everyday.
I enjoyed reading your post. As a writer, I often do not qualify my language so as to make a point. Qualifying everything you say tends to weaken an argument. I got your point and it’s a good one.
If you haven’t seen this video, you must watch it. http://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex.html
It’s the same concept. As is the “I, pencil” referenced earlier. The concept that even a “simple” object like a pencil/toaster can not be created by one person is profound. It’s worth writing about and thinking about.
No need to apologize—it’s a common mistake!
So why does any of this matter?
Blogs are pretty impractical without the internet.
Who cares if the Cheeseburger is impractical without a highly developed post-agrarian society (which we live in by the way). They are still delicious.
Be grateful that you can eat a cheeseburger and simultaneously b*tch about it on a blog!
You may want to consider the possibility that your little thought experiment convinced you that a cheeseburger couldn’t have been made before the 20th century, because–quite literally–every single assertion you made in your line of thought was false.
You simply made everything up, and everything you made up was wrong. You’re wrong about everything from the growing season of the tomato to the slaughtering of cattle to how cheese is made.
I don’t understand people who go through life like this. I mean: you can just look this stuff up. Really! Rather than just making up a rule about when farmers slaughter animals, you could just look into the actual practice. This is especially pertinent, when, as happened with your post, the rule you invent is wrong.
I guess you have a fun time coming up with justifications for the things you invent out of whole cloth, but I strongly recommend that you consider that it may be important to know what the facts of the case actually are. It matters for your post that people do slaughter and have always slaughtered and shall always slaughter beef cows any time they want. It really matters in this life what is true and what is false.
You caught me! The Pilgrims never even existed—that’s just a thing I came up with on the spur of the moment. I raised monkeys for their delicious bush meat, not turkeys. Tomatoes grow best in January, of course. Those books I linked to about the historical seasonality of beef slaughtering practices? Like Barack Obama’s birth certificate, I wrote those years ago, placed them in libraries, and waited for Google to scan them, all so I could spin this elaborate web of deceit. The history of the cheeseburger article on Wikipedia? All my doing. Nobody uses “rennet” to make cheese—that’s just a word I made up. I don’t even own a home—I live in a cardboard box under a bridge, where I no longer even enjoy the companionship of my monkeys. (“My dear, sweet Pinchy! No more pain where you are now, boy!”) Oh, “turbo,” your insistence of the error of my ways without the provision of a single correct answer of your own or even attempt to demonstrate my wrongness has shamed me into this admission. I am hoist with my own petard!
Well, I think we’re done here. I’m closing this to new comments—a family emergency (of the happy variety) will keep me from tending the discussion, and it seems pretty clear that everything to be said has been said, and now it’s all just repeating. This is still open to trackbacks from other blogs, though.
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