Man does not live by burger alone. Were that the case, we'd all blindly consume the stale-bunned, hockey pucks at the nearest McKing. True burger fans hunger for a deeper understanding of their favorite food, and, luckily, two books that lavish obsessive attention on this dish are hitting bookstores in April.
And while two burger books in one month might seem a bit much, they're two very different and complementary works.
While Ozerksy's book is a fascinating history of the hamburger packed with essential facts and lore and a handful of illustrations, Motz's is a rollicking road trip of a book crammed with mouthwatering photos and quirky stories.
It's often said that you don't know where you're going unless you know where you've been, and Ozersky's is the book you'd read to orient yourself before grabbing Motz's and hitting the highway on a burger road trip.
The Hamburger: A History
You'd think a book coming out of the Yale University Press would be as dry as a well-done burger, but The Hamburger: A History is instead a slim, handsomely jacketed book with more cuts of juicy knowledge than should rightly fit in its 133 pages. In five easy chapters, Ozersky handily deals with the contentious origins of the burger—which world culture spawned it and who invented the version we know today?—and then takes the reader on a fast-paced journey from the ramshackle hamburger stands of the early 1900s to White Castle (the original king of fast food) to the '50s and '60s, which see the rise and consolidation of the burger giants we know all too well today. With the '70s, Ozersky says, the burger backlash started, with people objecting to its symbolism, so iconic it was of American imperialism. And of course, with the '80s and '90s, we get the environmental backlash. Which brings us to today, with its focus on chef-driven burgers and a renewed interest in mom and pop burger joints.
As a lay burger-history student myself, I've read much of the literature Ozersky draws from, but I still found myself glued to the material I already knew—a testament to his humor and wit. If you've familiar with his work in Meat Me in Manhattan or as the editor of New York magazine's Grub Street, you'll find a similar wryness in this book. He's that cool GTA who made that otherwise-dull required class into a course you never skipped, drawing lines from topics such as Pop Art, Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," and the Whole Earth Catalog to burgers.
Where other burger-history books or burger-titan bios are dry and of interest only to someone with an unhealthy obsession, Ozersky's The Hamburger is completely accessible without playing down to the stereotypical burger-loving meathead.
Hamburger America: One Man's Cross-Country Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nation
It's usually the case that a book spawns a movie, not the other way around, but that's just what happened with Motz's Hamburger America. I've written plenty about Motz on this site, mostly about that burger documentary of the same name, in which he visits eight different indie burger joints around the nation and draws out the unique and charming stories behind them.
The book Hamburger America (which comes packaged with a DVD of the movie) is a continuation of the movie in a way. The original eight movie joints are in it, along with 92 additional places for you to drool over. With the exception of historical photos peppered throughout, Motz took all the pictures for the book, and proves himself just as adept with a still camera as with video. With exceptions, most of the 100 joints mentioned get either an architectural shot highlighting the well-worn charm of the place or a beautiful example of studio-quality burger porn—sometimes both.
Throughout, there are small sidebars with burger trivia—like the story of Hollywood director Todd Field helping replace the signature (and out-of-production) serving cups at the Apple Pan in L.A. after customers stole them all as keepsakes.
Though he tries to pull the whole "I'm not a writer, I'm a filmmaker" thing in the acknowledgements, Motz's voice conveys his enormous enthusiasm for burgers in an infectious way. This book will inspire weekend roadtrips—keep it in your glove compartment after you're done reading it.
Full disclosure: I know both Ozerksy and Motz and have worked with them both on AHT content in the past. Though I hope you'd know by now that I wouldn't recommend either of these books if I didn't believe in them.