As the rising popularity of fast food is exposed, Adam Morris salutes the history of the original junk food king
IT MAY not be Germany’s proudest export, but it is definitely one of the most regularly enjoyed. While the motor car, the Christmas tree and the printing press all have significant places in history, research has suggested that a simple sandwiched disc of meat is more popular than ever. And although it didn’t change the way people moved around, isn’t the focal point of the best-loved time of year, and didn’t revolutionise global communication, the humble hamburger has arguably been behind an influential food revolution.
It was revealed this week that for the first time more than half of meals bought outside the home in the UK come from fast-food outlets – establishments which in part owe their very existence to the evolution of the burger.
It seems to be an inexorable progress, to the point where even the poshest restaurants – which decades ago would have turned their noses up at the unflattering, pink lump of meat – have introduced burgers to their own menu, albeit with a “gourmet” upgrade.
The name originates from the German city of Hamburg, where it is said to have first emerged, and only in Mexico is actual ham the traditional key ingredient.
Historians suggest that when it first arrived on American shores in the early 1800s it was seen as a delicacy.
But more than a century of it easing its way into American culture has resulted in an extreme simplification, making it one of the most instantly recognisable dishes on the planet.
Restaurant chain McDonald’s is probably the brand most synonymous with the burger. After it opened its first restaurant in Scotland, bizarrely in Dundee on a dreich winter day in 1987, its relationship with the country grew.
Edinburgh had to wait, even after Kirkcaldy, to be granted its first set of Golden Arches.
Shortly after it opened, on Princes Street in 1991, it was seen as an acceptable pre-match meal location for the Scotland rugby team ahead of a vital World Cup clash with Western Samoa at Murrayfield.
It worked too, with Scotland running out 28-6 winners, though in today’s sporting climate of energy supplements and dieticians it is hard to imagine that trip being replicated.
So popular was the burger becoming by the mid-1990s, it managed to withstand the BSE scare, only temporarily suffering a drop in demand before reclaiming its place at the top table as one of the country’s most popular dishes – though it has never quite been able to edge out the national institution of fish and chips.
And even as McDonald’s itself attempted to modernise and provide healthier alternatives, in the face of growing criticism from health chiefs and nutritionists about the calorie count in many of its meals, “Big Macs” – the chain’s signature burger – remain its most popular order.
Chris Mantle is the development officer for the Edinburgh Community Food project, an initiative which works with residents in poorer areas of the Capital in the hope of teaching them, and their children, how to prepare healthy meals and eat them on a regular basis.
He said people were drawn to outlets such as McDonald’s from a young age, partly due to loyalty generated through free toys from Happy Meals and the bright exterior of its buildings.
And he added: “Burgers in general can get a bit of a bad rap. If you make them from scratch, with lean mince and grilled, balanced out with some salad or vegetables, it’s a perfectly healthy meal.
“The problem is in fast food chains where high levels of saturated fat are used, but of course that’s no surprise to anyone.
“In more traditional restaurants it depends, gourmet burgers aren’t necessarily as healthy as you might think.
“Chefs are always going to go for taste above health, and in both cases – unless it’s a restaurant that prides itself otherwise – the meat probably won’t be of great quality, because again it’s going to be down to price.
“In the children we work with in Craig- millar, for example, burgers are popular, but it’s chips and cheese and places like Greggs that they seem to really go for.
“We know people can be a bit squeamish about preparing and handling raw meat, and it can be like that at first, but once you get over that aspect of it, it’s a really great way to cook.”
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