The hamburger has become as much a symbol of America as Mickey Mouse. But how did this humble snack gain such iconic status? Andrew Buncombe charts the irresistible rise of our favourite fast food

I'm on my way to a celebration, a ritual and a chance to savour what is almost certainly America's most wonderful and fantastic cuisine. The occasion happens also to be a 100th birthday party.

I'm on my way to a celebration, a ritual and a chance to savour what is almost certainly America's most wonderful and fantastic cuisine. The occasion happens also to be a 100th birthday party.

There is nothing outwardly remarkable about Harry's Tap Room in Clarendon, one of Washington DC's northern Virginia suburbs. Indeed, as you walk inside and order a drink at the bar, or take the stairs to the busy dining-rooms upstairs, there's no indication that this restaurant is any different to countless largely anonymous, smart-but-casual establishments that serve typical American fare. It could fit the bill for anything from lunch with your parents to a relaxed first-date dinner.

But Harry's has a small yet significant claim to fame. According to a recent article in the Washingtonian magazine, Harry's does one thing better than any other local establishment - the hamburger. "A fair number of the hamburgers on this list are very good, and a few flirt with greatness," says the article. "But the burger that sets the local benchmark is the one at Harry's Tap Room."

Such serious attention for the simple hamburger? Very much so. In Britain, the hamburger is usually thought of in strictly negative terms, regarded simply as a thin and greasy fast-food staple best forgotten about as quickly as it is gulped down. Yuck! But in the US, people know and understand that the hamburger is more than this - much, much more. At its best, a hamburger is a sublime yet unfussy sensation, an affordable, ubiquitous, egalitarian meal that holds a unique place in American culture. The appeal of the burger transcends social and racial divides and spans the age gap. It is a king's meal at a pauper's price - and yet a burger carries itself with pride. A burger is never cheap, no matter how little it costs.

Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, the best-selling investigation into America's fast-food culture, is an aficionado of burgers. He says: "A good burger tastes similar to a good steak - grilled on the outside, rare on the inside - but is much softer and easier to chew. I think a good burger with melted cheddar, grilled onions and grilled mushrooms tastes better than the best sirloin or filet, and millions of people here and around the world seem to agree."

What's more, the burger has proven staying power. This year, in a suitably quiet and unshowy manner, the hamburger is celebrating its 100th birthday. Some purists and food historians may wish to argue this point, saying that a meal of chopped beefsteak cooked in a style favoured by German immigrants appeared as hamburger on the menu of Delmonico's restaurant in Manhattan as far back as 1834. But it is 100 years since the hamburger appeared as a sandwich: most accounts agree that the grilled meat encased in a toasted bun first appeared at the World's Fair in St Louis, Missouri. One contemporary report says the new creation "caused a sensation".

From that day, the burger never looked back. In his biography of the burger, Hamburger Heaven, the author Jeffrey Tennyson estimates that the average American eats about 30lbs of hamburger meat a year - which works out at three burgers each per week and a total of about 38 billion in a year. He writes: "While hamburgers today are considered just another necessity of life, many of us recall fondly our adolescent introduction to the hamburger cuisine. Burgers were the reason to cook-out, eat out or drive in. Not only was the mid-20th-century the golden age of television, it was also the post-war culture in full bloom and a glorious time for hamburgers."

In Harry's, there's a counter seat that overlooks the open-plan kitchen. One can see the chefs and kitchen staff hurrying around like worker ants, shouting orders that have just been placed or completed, finishing off plates with the final garnish and seeing those plates whisked off to diners. The waiter is quickly hovering with a menu. There's a good selection, but there is only one real choice. The waiter nods approvingly: "Oh, you're going to enjoy that."

First, some basics. The secret of a great burger is simplicity. Like a dinner jacket or a martini or a pizza topping or a glass of German beer brewed under that country's purity laws, keeping things simple ensures better results. It's the "less is more" principle applied to the griddle.

This means that a great burger should consist of just four or five components - the meat, the bread, a slice of tomato and a sliver of onion, and maybe a slice of cheese or a smear of ketchup. But that's it. Really, it is. Bacon, blue cheese, mayonnaise, chilli sauce, pineapple slices or whatever else you might have dreamt up in some fiendish hour have no place consorting with a burger. No matter how much Schlosser has done to improve our knowledge of the fast-food industry, his inexcusable affection for mushrooms is little short of heresy.

The next thing to remember is quality. The better the ingredients, the better the burger. It really is that simple. Here at Harry's, the burger is made of organic beef from Sunnyside Farms in Washington, Virginia (a small town out near the Blue Mountains), where the specially bred battle are three-quarters Japanese wagyu or Kobe and one-quarter Aberdeen Angus. (It was Mark Twain who said: "Sacred cows make the best hamburger.") Tom Greene, the restaurant's chief operating officer, says: "We ground [mince] our beef and then we make it up 80/20 lean to fat, using all the cuts of the animal, not just the peripheries. We ground it three times a week so that it is always really fresh. We season it in a Worcestershire sauce-based mix, and then it goes straight on to the charbroiler."

Another important factor is the bread, or bun. Indeed, in the history of the burger it may have been the bread that was the key. One of many alternative stories of the "first burger" tells of a 15-year-old boy, Charlie Nagreen, who was selling hamburger meat at the Outagamie County Fair in Wisconsin in 1895 when his customers complained that they wanted to be able to stroll around the fair while eating. The teenager, it is said, solved the problem by quickly placing the meat between two slices of bread.

Whatever the reality about the genesis of the burger, the importance of the bun is self-evident. The bread is a platform, a base on which to build. It need not be flashy or clever - the bread, after all, plays very much a supporting role - but it needs to be up to the job. Indeed, the downfall of the burgers at many fast-food chains is that the bread is both cloyingly sweet and too fragile, and the burger all too often falls apart.

Harry's opts for a bun that is a little on the sweet side, a sort of brioche that has quite a lot of egg in it. But the people at Harry's are smart enough to stick to another rule: if you don't want the burger to collapse when you bite it or cut it in half, you must toast the bun. An untoasted bun is a fragile vessel, likely to collapse at any unfortunate moment. Toasted, the bread becomes a solid structure on which to build something and soak up the meat's juices. It is the foundation for something fabulous.

The burger arrives, marvellous in its simplicity. The bread is toasted, the onion and tomato thickly sliced. The single meat patty is about an inch thick, seared on the outside so that it is black and crisp in places. I cut it in half and take a bite of one of the portions. It is very, very good. Someone has been paying attention.

It might sound obvious, but the cooking of the burger is the most important aspect of the preparation. You can have the best of ingredients, the most wonderful grass-fed beef, the most delicious toasted bun - but if you screw up on the cooking, your burger will be a disaster.

Again, in Britain it is our low regard for the burger that is often its downfall. The secret is to think of a burger not as simple minced beef that has been shaped into a circle, but rather as the finest cut of steak. That means that, just like a steak, a burger should never be overcooked and should be pink on the inside, not grey. Quite simply, if you want to order your burger cooked any more than "medium", you should not be eating one. Go and eat something else instead. Maybe a piece of leather.

As Robert Shoffner, the author of the Washingtonian article, writes: "The ideal burger is cooked medium-rare. Cooked rare, it fails to develop its full flavor. A hamburger cooked beyond the medium stage will be too stiff and lose most of its beefy flavor."

But the people at Harry's have got it just right. The burger is flavourful and juicy, easy to eat and substantial. It requires a good number of paper napkins to complete its eating in a way that avoids the spattering of one's clothes. The accompanying French fries (a freshly made potato salad is the only possible alternative) are adequate rather than fantastic, but we have not come here for the chips. Indeed, the only bad thing about the meal is a piece of limp, black-looking lettuce that belongs in the bin rather than on the plate. A minor problem.

Obviously, not every burger you get is as good as the one at Harry's. But one of the beguiling things about this wonderful meal is that you can get them everywhere. All across the US, be it in petrol stations, diners, hotel lobby restaurants or open-all-day fast-food joints (and often when there is simply nothing else available), you can find a burger ready and waiting.

Last Christmas Day evening, stranded in the wilds of Washington state on the trail - suitably enough - of America's first case of mad cow disease, the only place selling anything to eat for 25 miles or more was a humble outpost of the Jack In The Box chain of take-aways. On a miserable, freezing evening, that simple burger in a bun wrapped in greaseproof paper was the finest food imaginable. It was the best burger I'd ever had. Until now. Happy Birthday!

DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT?

*The world's most expensive burger is the DB Burger Royale, created by the French chef Daniel Boulud for New York's Bistro Moderne. The $50 (£28) creation comprises a 7oz patty of ground sirloin steak, filled with shredded short-rib meat and foie gras, served on a Parmesan and poppy-seed bun with fresh black Perigord truffles.

*The largest hamburger ever was cooked by Loran Green and friends at the Sleeping Buffalo Resort, near Saco, Montana. Made from pure local beef, it weighed 2,740kg (6,040lb) and measured 24ft in diameter.

*During the First World War, hamburgers were rechristened "liberty burgers" in the US, to avoid any association with Germany.

*More than 2.5 million Britons visit a McDonald's every day. Worldwide, McDonald's has sold 12 hamburgers for every person on earth. On average, a new McDonald's opens every three hours. A UK franchise could be yours for £340,000.

*In September 1990, McDonald's issued writs against Helen Steel and Dave Morris, alleging the company had been libelled in the anarchist duo's factsheet "What's Wrong with McDonald's". The subsequent trial became the longest in English history, lasting 313 days.

*In May 1990, John Selwyn Gummer, the Conservative government's Minister of Agriculture, attempted to demonstrate the safety of British beef by feeding a hamburger to his daughter. Six years later, British beef was shown to be the cause of CJD, a disease that has now killed more than 100 people.

*During his visit to the Labour Party conference in 2002, Bill Clinton was hit by a craving for fast food. Alastair Campbell described the visit to a Blackpool burger restaurant, accompanied by the film star Kevin Spacey, as "one of the more surreal of my nine years with the Prime Minister".

*The BurgerIDF.org website allows you to support the Israeli army by sending a gift of hamburgers and colas to troops in the field. A "jeep patrol" package (for four soldiers) costs $19.95 (about £11), a "platoon" package (30 soldiers) $129.95.

*Rather than steak and caviar, Oscar winners dined on burgers from the In-N-Out chain at this year's Academy Awards party.

*On Friday, Super Size Me, a documentary film by Morgan Spurlock, is released. It charts his decline in health (he gained nearly 30lbs, "pickled his liver" and lost his libido) after living only on McDonald's meals for a month.

WHERE'S THE BEEF? A FULL MENU OF BURGER FACTS

HAMMING IT UP: THE BEST SUPPORTING SNACK

Jules Winnifield: Hamburgers. The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast. Uumm, this is a tasty burger.

'Pulp Fiction'

(Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Arnold: Brad, I really fuckin' hate McDonald's, man. Ever since they started in with the chicken, everything went downhill.

'Fast Times at Ridgemont High'

(Amy Heckerling, 1982)

Bill Foster [in the Whammy Burger]: Why am I calling you by your first names? I don't even know you. I still call my boss "Mister", and I've been working for him for seven years, but all of a sudden I walk in here and I'm calling you Rick and Sheila like we're in some kind of AA meeting.

'Falling Down'

(Joel Schumacher, 1993)

Vincent Vega: You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Jules Winnifield: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

Vincent: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules: What'd they call it?

Vincent: Royale with Cheese.

Jules [repeating]: Royale with Cheese. What'd they call a Big Mac?

Vincent: Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.

Jules: What do they call a Whopper?

Vincent: I dunno, I didn't go into a Burger King.

'Pulp Fiction'

(Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Double cheeseburger, onion rings, large strawberry shake, and for God's sakes, hurry!

(Homer Simpson in 'The Simpsons')

Royal Tennenbaum: Anybody interested in grabbing a couple of burgers and hittin' the cemetery?

'The Royal Tennenbaums'

(Wes Anderson, 2001)

Lester: I'll have a Big Barn Burger, Smiley fries and an orange.

Counter Girl: Would you like some smiley sauce with that?

Lester: No, actually, I'd like to fill out an application.

Counter girl: There's no jobs for a manager, it's just for counter.

Lester: Good, I'm looking for the least possible amount of responsibility.

'American Beauty'

(Sam Mendes, 2001)

I'd like a cheeseburger, please, a large fries, and a Cosmopolitan.

(Carrie Bradshaw in 'Sex in the City')

CELEBRITY RELISH

* According to the writers Jane and Michael Stern, "Elvis Presley's favourite food was a hamburger, burnt to a crisp. When he went to a restaurant, he would order a hamburger and send it back three or four times until it was charred."

* Oprah Winfrey liked burgers until the advent of BSE. In 1998, she declared that "mad cow disease" had scared her off - and barely had time to order cheese on top before ranchers sued her, worried that her influence would lead to lower beef prices. They lost the case, and Oprah lost a lot of weight.

* Aged four, and long before she became Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah Michelle Geller was involved in the notorious "Burger Wars" of 1981 - appearing in a Burger King ad campaign that mocked the size of McDonald's patties.

* Last month Paris Hilton was reportedly close to tying up a $750,000 deal to appear in Burger King's new advertising campaign. But the talks broke down after executives became nervous over the stick-thin "It" girl's scandalous private life.

* As a co-founder of the Planet Hollywood burger chain (with Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone), Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed to be a hands-on manager. "I'm involved with everything from finding sites [and] choosing memorabilia [to] how much money we'll spend," he said. The big-screen beefcake severed his ties with the company after it was forced to close 47 of its 78 restaurants due to over-expansion.

CHEW THE (SATURATED) FAT

Ingredients of a typical fast food hamburger

37 per cent water

13 grams of protein

13 grams of fat

17 milligrams of calcium

3 milligrams of iron

21 milligrams magnesium

114 phosphorous

430 sodium

traces of copper and manganese

24 mcg of selenium

0.5milligram of vitamin E

2 milligrams of B vitamins

39 milligrams of cholesterol

total saturated fat 4.6 grams

305 calories

The average bun has enriched white wheat flour, water, corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil, yeast and 2 per cent salt.

A typical fast-food hamburger is nutritionally barren and a great source of fat, says Ian Marber, consultant for the Food Doctor nutrition clinic in London. "If you have the perfect hamburger, made with premium beef and vegetables such as onion and carrot chopped into it, on a brown bun and properly grilled, then it's a terrific combination of protein and carbohydrate. But it's a very convenient food to eat, and it's become a staple fast food and has been bastardised into a high-fat, high-sugar, high-carbohydrate product. I wouldn't want to see anyone having much more cholesterol, total saturated fat or salt. Burgers have got no vitamin C and though there are B vitamins in the buns, they're made from white flour, so they're not very concentrated. Burgers are not a great source of any nutrients, but they are a great source of fat and protein. Having a burger is not far off having deep-fried chicken. They're both as bad as each other."

THE ULTIMATE RECIPE, BY MARK HIX

Serves 4

1.4kg good-quality minced beef (20-30 per cent fat)

80g American mustard

320g tomato ketchup

8 good-quality baps

2 medium red onions

8 large sweet pickled gherkins

2 beef tomatoes

Mix the mince to ensure the fat is evenly distributed, then mould it into eight balls and shape it either with a burger press or by pushing the meat into a pastry cutter. Put the hamburgers in the fridge to set the meat before cooking. Whisk together the ketchup and the mustard for the hamburger sauce. Lightly toast the baps and keep them warm until you have cooked the burgers.

The hamburgers are best cooked on a hot barbecue or griddle plate, but a smoking hot cast-iron pan will do: this seals in the juices and yields a rare or medium-rare burger in a couple of minutes. Don't cook under the grill unless you have a red-hot American-style one, as this boils the meat and it becomes dry and lacks flavour.

Serve in the baps with slices of red onion, gherkin, tomato and the hamburger sauce.

Mark Hix writes on food in 'The Independent Magazine'

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