A society is what it eats. And what a society eats shapes the social and cultural lives of the individuals that belong to it. The burger has evolved into an icon, a true symbol of “America” with a strong evocative power. So, given its cultural impact, how has it shaped – and continues to shape – the “American” identity? Carol J. Adams, the author of the path breaking The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat, addresses this critical question by tackling it from different theoretical perspectives in a way that captures the reader’s attention from the very first lines. A plethora of socio-cultural, economic, and political, concepts connected to this cultural object come to light in this pocket-sized book of 30,000 words recently published by Bloomsbury as part of the series “Object Lessons”. The series explores the “hidden life of ordinary things” through object-oriented ontology, and includes titles such as Dust, Bookshelf, and Remote Control. Burger undeniably represents a worthy addition to an already remarkable series. This new book is clearly not a simple history of the burger, but a well-researched and thought-provoking study on the cultural impact of the burger specifically on “American” society (Adams rightly acknowledges the complexity behind the use of the word American when talking about United States and chooses to keep the word in brackets). The accessible prose, the alternation of facts and autobiographical experiences, the insightful reflections explored through the eyes of a feminist and animal rights advocate, all make this book appealing to readers of all walks of life.
By dropping the “ham” in hamburger, an array of possible paths of exploration opens before her, allowing her to test the conventional boundaries of what constitutes food and the ways in which food is ordinarily defined and perceived.
Countless books have been published on the history of the hamburger, the majority of which are focused on its veneration: David Michaels, The world is your burger: a cultural history, published only last year; Andrew F. Smith, Hamburger: a Global History, published in 2008 for the “Edible Series;” Jeffrey Tennyson’s Hamburger Heaven, 1993; and the list goes on extensively. Adams, with this slim but remarkable volume, decides to offer a counter history by switching from the mainstream triumphant celebration of the burger to the perspective of the exploited human and nonhuman animals who are victims of the production system. The history of violence central to the hamburger becomes justly acknowledged and finally ceases to be unspoken. The author, in fact, not only uncovers the dark side of this commodity, from the brutality of mass-production, to globalization, capitalism, colonialism, and “American” exceptionalism, but also builds a narrative that illustrates the devastating entanglements of oppression caused by the exploitative killing machine that produces hamburgers.
Adams’ choice to focus on the burger in these terms is as much nonconformist as it is most needed. The author in fact illustrates how any act of eating is a matter of social justice and always involves policy decisions, systemic issues, and moral concerns, while also stressing that the burger is not exempt from these dynamics.
What, then, is a hamburger for Carol J. Adams? Her straightforward answer is “a being transformed through technology from body parts to ground flesh, whether literal or figurative.” (54) And of what is a hamburger made? “Of freshly killed cows” (29). In her typical and recognizable style, the truth is revealed without the need to veil it with metaphors or euphemisms. As Adams stated in an interview, “language doesn’t merely have the effect of dehumanizing; it deanimates. It objectifies.” This belief is reiterated throughout the book. In fact, her interest in linguistics, language, and etymology, becomes crucial when describing the power of words to objectify, diminish, and dismember an individual, as well as how language is central in perpetrating exploitation towards human and nonhuman animals.
Already from the first chapter, “Citizen Burger”, Adams stresses the versatility of the burger’s identity, which swings between progress and democracy on one side and destruction and violence on the other. In fact, as Adams demonstrates through a series of examples, the burger has been forged as the symbol of freedom and US citizenship, while at the same time it reinforces ideals of whiteness and supremacy masked by a triumphalist rhetoric. The media and food chains have meticulously constructed the burger icon depicting it as a “right”, as a “full nutritional and sensory experience” (3); in this way, democratic rights and animal flesh eating started going hand in hand and have become normalized and socially accepted. The fast-food industry might have revolutionized how Americans eat and might also have spread a message of equality through a nicely built rhetoric, but at what price? While McDonalds, for instance, prides itself on feeding 1% of the population, it has killed billions of animals, created devastating health problems, destroyed lands, and exploited workers, while also deceiving its consumers.
In the following two short but very dense chapters, “Hamburger” and “Cow Burger”, Adams reconstructs the history of the burger focusing on its capitalist nature. Adams urges her readers to consider the ways in which the fast-food industry has always based its profits on the abuse of humans and nonhumans alike and has made the rationalization of production, work, and consumption, its credo. As George Ritzer stated in his famous book McDonaldization (1993) “the rational systems are unreasonable systems” since their repetitive, routinized, highly focused and compartmentalized tasks, can only devalue labor. Adams hints to the link between working class and burgers and concentrates on the workers in slaughterhouses, defined as the most vulnerable workers, “a migrant industrial workforce” generally living in low-income communities. For this issue the author leans heavily on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and on the information gathered and promulgated by the Food Empowerment Project. When closely analyzing the history of the burger the exploitation of workers turns out to be a massive problem, still often hesitantly acknowledged in the animal rights movement. If one considers that these individuals, victims of greedy corporations and of the lack of regulations, are often undocumented workers, with no medical insurance, working in unsanitary conditions, and with no support by unions, this should become a priority that should bring together activists and scholars working in the most disparate fields.
Another aspect that is analyzed in these pages is the intrinsic colonialist nature that defines the hamburger. In fact, as Adams underlines, “the main ingredient of the hamburger is colonialism” (31). By retracing the main steps of European colonization through the perspective of cows, from their arrival in Hispaniola to contemporary centralized slaughter, she manages to bring to surface the colonial and racist message behind meat eating, which reinforces an ideal of inferiority and weakness connected to populations whose prevalent diet is not based on animal flesh. Again making valuable use of her expertise and sensibility towards language, most of the examples she chooses to illustrate stereotypes between meat eating, gender, and xenophobia, are quite compelling, such as the bumper sticker sending a clear message of masculine identity and conservatism: “eat beef, the West wasn’t won on a salad” (52).
Adams definitely shines brightest when she closely analyzes the intersection between women’s oppression and animal exploitation, such as in chapter four, “Woman Burger”, in which she analyzes not only the process through which hamburger flesh is feminized in advertising campaigns but also how depictions of sexual objectification by the fast food hamburger industry have become the accepted norm in popular culture.
The section dedicated to the grinder, defined as “an object of transformation”, is particularly engaging and well written.
The comments on the (in)famous cover of the magazine Hustler depicting a woman being literally grounded, perfectly summarizes her brilliant reasoning and her political position on the issue:
“The magazine amplified the metaphor from trench warfare: the meat grinder was the nickname soldiers in the First World War gave to the bloody Battle of Verdun. Grinds me down and ground down are metaphors of defeat. A human body going through a meat grinder is clearly defeated. Hustler speaks in stereotypes, not just about women, sexuality, and objectification, but about what a hamburger is: transformation of living into dead, of body parts into minced animal flesh- the ultimate victory of human over nonhuman animal.” (56)
The meat grinder metaphor has been used in many different occasions to signify precisely a defeat. The memorable images created by British political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” of faceless and oppressed children turned into ground meat, for instance, is another example of defeat. However, there too, like in all metaphorical images depicting a meat grinder, the animal is completely forgotten. Viewers in fact tend to disconnect from the literal referent from which the metaphor originated: the cows that are killed and transformed through the grinder into someone’s dinner, and Adams achieves in making them present again.
In the following chapter, “Creutzfeldt-Jacob burger and other modernist hamburger identity crises,” the reader assists to a turning point in the history assembled by the author. In fact, here Adams discusses the facts and reasons behind the identity crisis that affected the burger in the past decades. Starting with analyzing the consequences of the “Mad Cow disease” that spread in the 1990s, Adams notes how the absent referents par excellence, the animals, were in this occasion perceived as real animals again, more specifically as a threat to human health. Learning about entire herds being burnt, or of cows being fed with brains and body parts of other cows, inevitably undermined the market and sales of hamburgers; also, learning about the ecological damage of intensive farming provoked the same negative impact, which again highly damaged the identity of the burger. Among the several strategies adopted by governments to prevent criticism, one of the most staggering was the introduction of Ag Gag laws, an attempt not only to ban any form of recording in factory farms and slaughterhouses but also to blatantly criminalize animal rights activism. So, regardless of the burger’s unsustainability, of the scandals, the abuse, the violence, people continue buying hamburgers. The answer to why this happens is not the focus of the book and would require extensive discussion. Instead, Adam’s chooses to focus first on retracing the history of the veggie burger and finally on the rise of plant-based alternatives and clean meat.
Although the veggie burger is still today undergoing a process of normalization, it is important to know that it actually evolved in parallel to the animal flesh burger. The aim of the author is precisely this: to retrace the fundamental stages of its history while also reflecting on the cultural stereotypes surrounding an alternative that actually must be considered “an answer to population growth, land scarcity, and health” (89). From the development of the Seventh Day Adventism to the counterculture of the 1960s, Adams offers a quick overview that accomplishes to restore the deserved dignity that had remained practically submerged until now.
But what happens when synthetic biology and tissue engineering are added to the mix? A burger without the animal comes to life. Adams visited the headquarters of Impossible Foods in the Silicon Valley, of Beyond Meat, in El Segundo, California, both producing plant-based burgers, and also met with the co-founder of Memphis Meats, who is working in the United States on in vitro meat, which is still not available for sale due to its high costs of production. After explaining the process of lab-grown meat, Adams lists the challenges faced by these products, such as scale and funding, without however addressing the controversial aspects of this new technology. It is true that the environmental downsides would be eradicated and that there would not be a need to send animals to slaughter, nonetheless ethical implications exist since, to a certain extent, it still relies upon the “commoditization” of animals. The issue would probably require a whole book and this is not the focus of the author, whose intention instead seems to inform and raise awareness on the present alternatives and to leave the readers with an optimistic and hopeful note.
To conclude, the final question posed by Adams in the afterword is: what is going to overthrow the history of the hamburger? “Is the unmarked, slaughterless burger our future?” (130) Only time will reveal what the future unfolds. In the meantime, the author wants to remind us that when we eat “we are consuming inter-species history, environmental history, national history, and gender politics” (133). A hamburger then is never just a hamburger; it always carries with it an intricate history that hides in plain sight a system based on violence and oppression from which consumers must stop turning away.