America isn’t much to look at (not since the commercial developers got their hands on it), but what it lacks in aesthetic beauty and architectural grace, it makes up for in hamburgers. It doesn’t matter anymore where the hamburger “might have” originated from (some Germans still try to cling to Hamburg as the progenitor) because there is absolutely no questioning its association with the United States. Or rather, Divided States.
And anyway, wherever it was “truly” born, America has done what it has forever done best: claim anything it wants as its own. Everything about the hamburger, after all, speaks to what America, in its “modern” iteration, is about: consumption—made fast and “easy.” But the easiness is an illusion, much like just about everything else in the land (including “freedom”). For it comes with a hard long-term price. One that involves the many dangerous fallouts relating to climate change. Not to mention the way in which the multi-tentacled labor force responsible for shilling hamburger meat is treated by the still-revered system of capitalism. While these low-wage workers are paid in relative scraps for their toil, those at the top of the metaphorical food chain at major conglomerates like McDonald’s rake in the dough that will sustain every familial generation that comes after them (not that there is likely to be very many, based on the current state of affairs).
Brett Jansen didn’t think about this too much. He was just a high school kid, barely seventeen. Even if, more and more, those of his generation were saddled with the pressure of thinking about “doomsday things” earlier on in life. Brett wasn’t one of those people. He was happy to be a meathead, though he didn’t comprehend that’s why he was content, what with his meathead capacity for (not) understanding. Although most of the football players on the team came from families that wouldn’t require them to worry about a college fund, Brett made no qualms, nor did he feel any ostracism about having to work to save up some additional income in case he didn’t get that full-ride sports scholarship to Northwestern. He was dumb, but not so dumb as to expect that it wouldn’t be competitive to secure such a luxury, and so he decided to hedge his bets.
His fellow teammates even seemed to look at Brett’s job as something “cool” in the sense of being fascinated by how “the other half” lives and essentially getting off on “slumming it” stories. Of which Brett had to offer in spades. Ranging from how the meat was really prepared to all the unsanitary goings-on behind the scenes to the insane customers that would roll up to the window in varying states of sobriety. Brett often wondered if the clientele might actually be slightly more sophisticated at McDonald’s than it was at Burger King, but that’s the place he got hired first so that was that. Perhaps if he had been more concerned with honoring “hamburger posterity,” he would have tried working at a White Castle. The “restaurant” that Americans so often forget was responsible for establishing the processed food model that would come to be the norm.
While White Castle started the “selling ‘em by the sack” trend in 1921, McDonald’s perfected it in the 40s and beyond. The business model of “fill ‘em up” no longer just applying to gasoline in cars, but “food” in people. Those of Brett’s generation, of course, could never know how much more “natural” the product was back then. So natural, in fact, that White Castle co-founder Edgar Waldo “Billy” A. Ingram saw fit to pull a Super Size Me test (long before Morgan Spurlock did) by enlisting one “subject” to consume solely White Castle burgers for thirteen weeks so as to debunk “myths” (which were not wholly inaccurate) like, “The hamburger habit is just about as safe as walking in a garden while the arsenic spray is being applied, and about as safe as getting your meat out of a garbage can standing in the hot sun.”
It was Arthur Kallet who said that, in his damning 1933 exposé co-written with Frederick J. Schlink. Fighting back the public fear of hamburgers being essentially radioactive (especially with rumors of meatpacking plant conditions still swirling ever since Upton Sinclair released The Jungle), Ingram called upon the services of a professor and biochemist at the University of Minnesota to conduct an experiment. That “experiment” being a student named Bernard Flesche. As mentioned, Bernard ate only White Castle burgers for thirteen weeks. Ingram subsequently touted in certain White Castle ad campaigns that Bernard “maintained good health throughout the three-month period and was eating twenty to twenty-four hamburgers a day during the last few weeks.” Sure, he was fine then, but he ultimately died of a heart attack at age fifty-four. All speaking to Kallet’s point that, “If the poison is such that it acts slowly and insidiously, perhaps over a long period of years… then we poor consumers must be test animals all our lives; and when, in the end, the experiment kills us a year or ten years sooner than otherwise we would have died, no conclusions can be drawn and a hundred million others are available for further tests.”
Brett and his jock friends were among that hundred million (which has grown to an even more locust-like number since the publication of 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs). But, in contrast to consumers of the past, they appeared less concerned with what they were putting into their bodies. Particularly since 1) they’d grown up in an epoch when “Crimes of the Future stomach” was all but inevitable regardless of what one ate and 2) they wrote off any general food unhealthiness as moot because of the constant exercise they did, therefore the constant need to “feed the beast.” And men, to be sure, are beasts. Brutes. Brett’s ilk being more notably so than other breeds. But who was Brett really harming with his casual consumption? Who was any American “harming” with their constant need to suckle upon the burger tit? The environment wasn’t a person, so fuck it. That’s what the logic seemed to be.
Never mind that the “monoculture” of America itself must extend to crop fields, which means plowing over increasingly limited lands to create them. Fuck the prairies, the forests, the grasslands. Fuck it all until it’s obliterated and every American, both within the nation itself and made “honorarily American” through globalization, is fed with a hamburger. Convert every natural field into an agricultural one that is treated regularly with harmful chemicals that get released into the air, tainting the atmosphere that gives back to humans what they put in. And what they put into everything—for the sake of their goddamn burger—is toxic chemicals and fertilizers to oversaturate fields and plants with. These chemicals, in turn, running off into the water supply. Then there is the cow shit to consider. You think that doesn’t emanate and radiate all manner of toxicity out into the ether? Take a drive through Coalinga and you’ll understand. That’s where Harris Ranch a.k.a. Cowschwitz is. Where the shit, the farts and the burps of roughly seventy to a hundred thousand cows coalesce to create “a good, honest American smell.” And it is that. In terms of what Americans interpret as good and honest. With the entire supply chain of how the meat industry functions being a perfect funhouse mirror of capitalism. And Brett willfully chose to stare into it every day, participating in it as both purveyor and consumer.
But what can one do? Money has to be made, and the slop is cheap enough to keep tantalizing the masses. Funnily enough, hamburgers became the behemoth industry of today at the height of America’s Great Depression. For five cents a burger, whose scant budget could possibly resist becoming a proponent of the assembly-line cuisine? As another economic collapse approaches, it’s likely the hamburger will be the last thing standing in this nation (well, that and racism—of course). Because America is a hamburger. And all who feast upon it seem to turn their own brains into meat as well.