Cover Story: Crisis in a sesame seed bun

The burger is an icon for our times: it has been a symbol of rebellion, technology, even Thatcherism (pick your own relish). And, argues Paul Vallely, BSE is its crowning glory
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The photograph of John Selwyn Gummer, then Secretary of State for Agriculture, feeding a hamburger to his daughter Cordelia - to demonstrate his conviction that British beef was safe in spite of BSE - is an image which may well prove to be his political epitaph.

His mistake was not so much that, of his four children, he chose the one whose name was charged with such unfortunate resonances (at the end of King Lear his daughter dies, assassinated by her father's political enemies, and our hero goes mad). No, it was his choice of a burger that may prove his tragic flaw. For the hamburger is an icon for our times and BSE is its crowning glory.

The hamburger has for almost a century now been an index to the character of the age. In its provenance, preparation, purchase and very place of consumption it has told in microcosm the history of the 20th century. In each decade its character and its image have subtly reflected the shifting fashions and preoccupations of the era.

Its origins are cloaked in an uncertainty that only assists its status as a characterless object to which each generation may add whatever relish it chooses. Its links with the German city of Hamburg are unclear. Every culinary civilisation has had some form of ground meat patty and the food writer Martha Lomask traces its origins further east - to Tartary - in an original recipe of finely chopped horsemeat, eaten raw with spices. But most food historians accept a link with the eponymous Baltic port.

Thus the hamburger enters history as the plain but honest food of poor but ambitious immigrants to the United States. Indeed according to Theodora FitzGibbon, author of The Food of the Western World, it had its origins in the fare of the German-owned Hamburg-American Shipping Line where in the 1880s Hamburg beef - salted and slightly smoked, so that it kept well on a sea voyage, but rather hard - was minced and then softened with a mixture of soaked breadcrumbs, eggs and sweated onions and served with sour-dough bread, or formed into meatballs and simmered, after frying, in stock or in a rich tomato sauce.

But it was at the World Fair in St Louis in 1904 that it first became a symbol of mass-produced cuisine. It was there that the bun was first introduced and the result was wildly popular. Visitors consumed the "Hamburger Steak" in vast quantities. Soon after, in 1921, the first hamburger chain, White Castle, was established. But generally the burger remained a wholesome home-made dish. Older Americans still cherish childhood memories of Mom taking out the miner, clamping it to the kitchen table, and grinding good fresh steak and, after adding onion and seasoning, taking the result straight out to the charcoal grill in garden.

"It was made with good meat with decent marbling," says the Independent's food writer and restaurant critic, Emily Green, recalling a childhood in California, "but like all things American when imported here it has been debased and perverted."

The hamburger first entered British consciousness as part of the post- war spending spree. Meat was one of the final products to come out of rationing - supplies were restricted until 1954 - and beef became a symbol of the new post-war prosperity. When at the end of that decade the frozen beefburger was introduced by Walls and Bird's Eye (renamed to avoid unnecessary questions about why it did not taste of ham) the thin little cake of bland rubbery meat was a glamorous product. It was somehow foreign. It was frozen, which was then the height of new technology. It was the first of the new wave of "convenience" foods which were about to make the world a better place and begin the liberation of women from the drudgery of home-cooking and housework.

The older generation did not approve, which made it all the better. In the Sixties the Wimpy bar - with its burgers with onion and ketchup squirted from a red plastic tomato and coffee (not tea) served in clear Pyrex cups - became the suburban teenager's point of access to the American Dream. The hamburger then was a symbol of the techno age - as perfectly circular and streamlined as the flying saucers of contemporaneous flights of fancy. It was as uniform and relentlessly predictable as only the white heat of technology could make food.

True, there were those who rebelled against this celebration of the new Fordism. As early as 1965 the thriller writer and foodie Len Deighton was holding forth on "How To Make The Perfect Hamburger" insisting on the methode hache in which the meat was not minced but chopped finely between two knives "in the French manner". But to most the hamburger was quintessentially a sacrament of our national love affair with Americana. It was a phenomenon which was made flesh in the Seventies with the burgers of the Great American Disaster and the Hard Rock Cafe.

It was in the Eighties that another subtle shift occurred. People became aware that America was no longer another place but a culture which had imbued the world. And the hamburger became globalised, too, in the form of McDonald's. With its US home market, like the fat in its burgers, heavily saturated McDonald's looked abroad. By the end of the Eighties it had grown to such a size that every day 28 million global citizens ate there and the Big Mac became so omnipresent that the Union Bank of Switzerland began to use it as the international measure of purchasing power.

This was the age in which society became fragmented yet the international economy became homogenised. The hamburger continued its subtle transformation as talisman of the times. It was always the same - standardisation produced the brand recognition and quality assurance which were a key part of its success. Yet, neat in its bun, it was a symbol of self-contained completeness and self-sufficiency - the perfect food of Thatcherite individualism. It was a formula which stormed the world.

But its successes have also drawn upon it in the Nineties the criticisms which were levelled at that era. Britain's longest-running libel case - still running in the High Court - centres around accusations (all fiercely denied by McDonald's) that it is the champion of "economic imperialism", violates the environment and creates "McJobs" which offer low wages in dreary work.

Foodies began to see the world's changing culinary tastes as a symbol of what is wrong with the new consumerism. "The hamburger is a metaphor for our times - cheap, convenient and an indication that we have as a nation given up any real interest in what we eat," says the leading food writer Frances Bissell, lamenting the trends of our increasingly obese nation towards snacking on the hoof or before the TV instead of eating proper meals. "The British have opted for the easy, cheap way out."

Then along came BSE and the realisation that the cheap, convenient, easy way out may turn out to be none of those things. It may be that the average person has more chance of winning the National Lottery than contracting Mad Person Disease but all at once the nation is ceased with the fear that it could be them.