On Truth, Nutburgers, and the American Way 

New book shows why the humble hamburger is an important American icon

Paul V. Griffithin America, where diversity is supposed to be a given, how is it that the hamburger, a cultural mongrel, reigns supreme?

In 2001, the late Robin Cook created a tempest in a teapot when he claimed that chicken tikka masala was “now a true British national dish.” Cook (then the U.K.’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs) meant well, explaining that Britishness was greater than its multicultural parts. Could a similar debate ever arise in America, where diversity is supposed to be a given and the hamburger, a cultural mongrel, reigns supreme?

Not if George Motz has anything to say about it. In a new book, Hamburger America (Running Press, 299 pp., $19.95), Motz sees the burger joint as a regionally unique and indispensable part of American culture. For Motz, the burger’s mortal enemy isn’t culinary immigrants like tikka masala and kabobs. Instead, it’s the flavorless products of the MacMonoculture, which he fears will become a “reference point for many as to what an American Burger should look and taste like.”

Hamburger America features 100 of the best roadside stands, diners and mom ’n’ pop operations that specialize in burgers. Among Motz’s picks are Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Conn., one of several restaurants that claim to be the original home of the American hamburger, and Matt’s Drive-In of Butte, Mont., whose Nutburger features a bizarre concoction of peanuts and Miracle Whip. The book’s full-color photos alone can raise cholesterol levels.

Whether weird or traditional, Motz’s faves have to meet certain criteria. A winning burger must be made from fresh, never frozen, ground beef—and being ground that day, in house, is a plus. He considers age, historicity and affordability, as well as preservational issues. Two Nashville restaurants make the cut: Rotier’s and Brown’s Diner. Of the latter, which recently recovered from yet another kitchen fire, Motz says: “The fact that it survives is a miracle, and a testament to the power of hamburger culture in this country.”

For Motz (whose documentary film of the same name won three Emmys), Hamburger America is no mere nostalgia trip. With their variety, inventiveness and dedication to quality, his burger joints symbolize the pioneering American spirit. Their smoking griddles give off a whiff of permanence in an increasingly disposable age: “They’re part of what I call the ‘Whole Burger Experience,’ which includes the taste of the burger; the environment in which you are enjoying that burger; and the people you are eating with. These are all very important components to creating the perfect burger moment.”

Motz appears at Davis-Kidd Booksellers at 7 p.m. May 5.

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