To say that La Frieda Meats and the crap economy are behind this force is to willfully ignore anything that has happened in the burger world outside of New York City and before 2008.
Josh "Mister Cutlets" Ozersky, author of Meat Me in Manhattan and The Hamburger: A History and editor of The-Feedbag, took a thoroughly entertaining spin on Nightline last night (video here). The premise of the segment, hosted by John Berman, was that the burger is the perfect food to eat in a crap economy. While I think the market-in-the-toilet is a driving factor in the burger boom, I do take some issues with Berman and Ozersky's theory.
Berman: "Everything seems to be failing in America right now, except the burger, which is booming."
Ozersky: "That's right. And it always will boom. Because the burger is omnipotent and irresistible. It can never be weakened. It can never be slowed down. It can never stop its ever-increasing growth in popularity. It's the single most powerful force in the food universe.... The hamburger is a way that people can experience everything that's great about eating beef—the flavor, the tenderness, and everything—in a way that's a affordable."
And that's just one example of Ozersky's charming hamburger hyperbole. (He also makes a passing reference to Mordor in a bit about how describing a hamburger should be part of the U.S. citizenship test.) You have to hand it to him—he makes some good points in a humorous way, sounding like a college professor who teaches an advanced course on hamburger theory. As a friend said, "Josh really puts the ham in hamburger."
Ozersky takes Berman on a tour of some of New York's best burgers, starting with the Spotted Pig; moving on to the Shake Shack UWS; touring Pat La Frieda Wholesale Meats, which, coincidentally, grinds the burger mixture for all the restaurants in the segment; and ending with City Burger, the first burger joint in New York to deploy La Frieda's Cadillac of burger blends, the Black Label patty.
Harbinger of Hard Times
At La Frieda Meats, Pat LaFrieda Jr. boosts Berman's theory, telling him that more and more restaurants are adding burgers to their menus and that his burger orders have tripled in the last year. "The economy's going to be in a lotta trouble for at least this entire year. 2009 will be all burgers—I'll tell you that right now."
As testament, La Frieda Meats has devoted an entire room at its facility to grinding meat and shaping patties.
Burger Boom Predates La Frieda, Crap Economy
As Nightline visits La Frieda Meats, Ozersky asserts, "Really, this is the source of the great burger revolution."
While I do give La Frieda credit as a driving force behind some of the best burgers in New York City, and there's no doubt those burgers are more affordable than steak, I do take exception to Ozerky's claim.
Moreover, for Ozersky to promote La Frieda as the source of the burger revolution is to negate his own ample presence on the burger scene. As the author of Meat Me in Manhattan and The Hamburger: A History, as erstwhile editor of Grub Street and current editor of The-Feedbag, Josh has been at the forefront of advancing the hamburger in the cultural zeitgeist. He has discovered countless tasty burger gems and was an early mentor to me as I studied his writing and opinions on the subject. The burger has had few better champions than Josh.
It's also to negate the tremendous work of such folks as George "Hamburger America" Motz, whose burger documentary easily predates the La Frieda worship that followed in the wake of the Shake Shack's opening on July 1, 2004. Motz started working on his burger biopic in 2001, and it unofficially premiered in April 2004.
I just spoke with Motz, and he reminded me, too, that, for better or for worse, Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Burger was really the dish that, in 2001, started it all as far as moving the burger into the culinary spotlight. Sure, it's crazyily gussied up, as William Grimes describes in this 2001 story, but that reimagined craziness from a bigwig French chef propelled other folks to think about burgers in new ways. And, more important, the DB Bistro Burger inspired a backlash among purists—the same people who are now making the back-to-basics burgers that Ozersky loves.
The Nightline piece also failed to take into account burger happenings nationwide—the rapid expansion of Five Guys (D.C.-based) and The Counter (L.A.-based) come to mind. To say that La Frieda Meats and the crap economy are behind this force is to willfully ignore anything that has happened in the burger world outside of New York City and before 2008. The producers of Nightline should have done more research before advancing this story—but then they wouldn't have had one.
And that's not saying anything about the rise of food on the web, with people sharing burger news on boards like Chowhound, BurgerClub.org, on countless food blogs, among them Grub Street, Eater, and, yes, A Hamburger Today.
The DB Bistro elevation and its attendant backlash, the comfort-food movement, pixels and pixels of web burgerage—this is what truly formed the burger boom long before La Frieda Meats gained fame and before the economy spiraled toward Depression 2.0.