How exasperating can a very short book be? I give you Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History (Yale, 141 pp., $22). Ozersky, whose official title is “Food Editor/Online for New York Magazine” (love that slash), has contrived in not much more than a hundred pages of heavily leaded text to cram in everything I find most irksome about the postmodern branch of semi-scholarship known as cultural studies: the jaw-breaking jargon, the sniggering coyness, the don’t-take-me-too-seriously irony.
The irritation starts on the second page:
Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home, it had a special semiotic power-a quality not shared even by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the Reuben, the po’boy, or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says America like a hamburger . . . . Is it a sizzling disc of goodness, served in a roadside restaurant dense with local lore, or the grim end product of a secret, sinister empire of tormented animals and unspeakable slaughtering practices? Is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity?
The Hamburger is like that from start to finish. Is the hamburger a Bad Thing? Well, yes, it must be, if only because it is an American Thing beloved of ordinary folk, and you know all about those pesky ordinary folk, right? But the damn thing still tastes good, so Ozersky writes about its cultural history in such a way as to suggest at all times his superiority to that which he nonetheless allows himself to enjoy–and the benighted Americans who continue to insist on enjoying it unselfconsciously. Like a limousine liberal of fast-food cuisine, he wanders in and out of both camps, nibbling his medium-rare cheeseburgers with just the right amount of ennobling guilt.
The have-it-both-ways trickery of The Hamburger is displayed at length in the chapter devoted to McDonald’s, which Ozersky calls “the most symbolically loaded business in the world,” one that “represents America to the world in a way no other business ever has or likely ever will.” We are simultaneously invited to admire the ingenuity with which the founders of McDonald’s contrived to automate the production of 15-cent hamburgers and to tremble at the larger implications of unleashing such a technology on an unprepared world–yet at no time does Ozersky ever commit himself to the loony leftism of the anti-McDonald’s fanatics who regard Ray Kroc as the source of all evil in the modern world. In describing the experience of Sandy Agate, one of the first McDonald’s franchisees, Ozersky assures us that his story “doesn’t end happily. (Arguably, the same could be said of the McDonald’s Corporation or for that matter America.)” That throwaway parenthesis says everything about The Hamburger.
Robert Warshow first anatomized Ozersky’s politico-literary technique in his 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker:
The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.
Who could have predicted in 1947 that someone would come along six decades later who could write about the lowly hamburger in such a manner? Of such is the kingdom of cultural studies, where everything is permitted, even the consumption of ground beef on a white-bread bun–so long as you do it with the right attitude.