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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Burgers

Is special sauce really that noteworthy? How big is too big? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Hamburgers! They’re from Hamburg, surely? And flipped by dumbasses? Time to scoff down some burger facts and myths.

Lie #1: Hamburgers Come from Hamburg

You’d think so, right? But no, the hamburger as we know and love it is an American creation

Various precursors to the hamburger did exist in Germany’s second-biggest city (and home of Miniatur Wunderland, the biggest miniature railway in the world and basically the best place ever built) — the frikadelle is a flattened beef meatball that looks pretty patty-like, although also contains onions, egg and smooshed-up bread to bind it, while the rundstück warm is leftover roast meat served in a bun.

However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century and the US of A that it all came together. First there was the “Hamburg steak,” an expensive patty of lightly smoked, largely raw beef served with a raw egg and no bread — so close! so close, you historical idiots! — from 1870 or so. (Interestingly, a variation on Hamburg steak developed by James Henry Salisbury in 1897 — the legendary lunchroom staple Salisbury steak — was created to try and combat diarrhea. From haute cuisine to trying to plug a shit-spraying butthole in a quarter of a century.)

There are ongoing disputes, never likely to be resolved, about who it was that first slapped a beef patty into some bread — there are places in Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Connecticut and New York who all stake a claim to it, sometime between 1885 and 1891. This was all with hard rolls or normal bread, as the steamed hamburger bun wasn’t invented until 1916 by White Castle co-founder Walter Anderson, and it didn’t occur to anyone to put some cheese in there until 1926

Lie #2: “Two All-Beef Patties, Special Sauce, Lettuce, Cheese, Pickles, Onions on a Sesame Seed Bun”

Long before the internet devalued words like “friend,” burger restaurants were doing it for “special.” How special is special sauce, really? McDonald’s revealed their recipe in 2012, a mixture of mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, yellow mustard, white wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika. It’s slightly more complicated than when people mix ketchup and mayo and expect a fucking round of applause, but not much. 

However, in 2016 a bottle of it was sold at a U.K. charity auction to raise money for Ronald McDonald House for a staggering £65,900 (about $90,000). The top bidder turned out to be a timewaster, but still, that’s a colossal amount of money when they could have just put some mayonnaise in the sun

(Also, unrelated to anything, one of the structural engineers who investigated how the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11, an incredibly respected figure in the world of earthquake-resistant engineering, is called Ronald O. Hamburger, the most hamburgery name imaginable.) 

Lie #3: Slinging Burgers Is a Job for Simpletons

Working in fast food is treated as shorthand for not being good enough to do anything else — flipping burgers is seen as a job only for dumbass teenagers and complete fuckups. 

The thing is, most people in vastly more respected jobs would really struggle to do a shift in a burger joint. You’re dealing with hot oil, huge amounts of customers for whom instantaneous simply isn’t fast enough and as few staff as the branch feels they can get away with. As one fast-food worker told Vox: “Fast food is intense! And it’s stressful! You’re always feeling rushed, you’re on a time crunch for literally eight hours straight, you’re never allowed to have one moment just to chill.”

With shifts assigned by algorithm, lateness automatically penalized and injuries treated with condiments instead of medical assistance, it’s an incredibly difficult job, far more grueling and stressful than most, and all for shit-ass money and customers spitting in your face. You don’t get to work from home in a pandemic if you work in a fast-food place — you get treated like shit and potentially get coronavirus. In a just world, the people who make Big Macs would be a lot nearer to the front of the line for Big Vacs (as in, coronavirus vaccinations, ‘cause it rhymes and, you know what, let’s move on)

Lie #4: The Grease in That’ll Kill Ya!

It will! But it might not get a chance if the rest of what you’re eating beats it to you. Americans face a very real chance of injury from ingesting the bristles from grill brushes left behind after cleaning. A 2016 paper in the journal Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery calculated a likely 1,698 ER visits due to ingesting bristles in the 12 preceding years. A 2019 paper in the American Journal of Case Reports looked at three patients who had accidentally had bristly burgers and found bowel perforations, fistulas and abdominal issues. 

Other wacky shit can find itself in your burger — rusted metal, razor blades, human teeth, fillings, weed, glass and so on — without necessarily being deemed “hazardous.” According to Food Safety Magazine, the FDA only classifies hard and sharp objects of between 7 millimeters and 25 millimeters in size as hazardous, reasoning anything smaller is unlikely to cause injury and anything larger is so big only a dumbass would eat it (not their words). 

Lie #5: A Double Quarter-Pounder Is Just Too Much Burger

It is, of course — a double QP with cheese contains 98 percent of your recommended daily intake of saturated fat, 59 percent of your recommended daily intake of salt and 55 percent of your recommended daily intake of cholesterol, they’re incredibly bad for you and that’s without any fries or soda or anything, fuck — but burgers so much more cartoonishly excessive are available that they make it look borderline sensible.

If you have ten grand and three days’ notice, for instance, Mallie’s Sports Grill & Bar in Detroit will do you a 1,774-pound burger that, according to proprietor Steve Mallie, doesn’t taste as shitty as you might expect. As he told Food & Wine, “People think it’s going to taste like crap but it’s pretty flavorful.”

Mallie didn’t come up with the burger expecting to sell a lot, conceiving of it partly as a publicity stunt (Mallie now holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest commercially available burger) and partly as a tribute to his late wife. Five feet in diameter, and now $2,000 more expensive that it was when he got the record (it cost $7,799 in 2017, went for nine grand in 2018 and is now bang on ten), it’s apparently limited in size only by the bread available to Mallie at the time — he claims to have a setup that can cook a seven-and-a-half-foot burger, and hopes to one day get the additional Guinness World Record for largest burger ever made, currently held by an extremely inelegant-looking 2,566-pound German monster

Spending that much on a burger does seem mad. You could get two burgers for that, if you go to Vegas’ Fleur restaurant for a stupid wagyu beef, foie gras and truffle shavings burger, a mere $5,000 a pop. Or, you know, give someone else the money and have a sandwich. It all turns into poo!