The burger as fetish


Growing up, I was terrified of my best friend’s grandmother, tiny but fierce with her shellacked black hair, penciled eyebrows, and penchant for telling us girls to “stand up straight.” When I confessed I had never eaten a burger at the Varsity, she declared my situation “un-American, un-Southern, and un-Christian.” That afternoon, she took us to the Varsity Jr. (now closed), where I first heard the siren song, “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”

Illustration by Mikey Burton
Illustration by Mikey Burton

Thirty-some years later, the burger takes up more cultural space than ever. Fancy burger joints have become a destination, and the hawkers of these high-end patties have taken self-aggrandizement to a new level. Consider that Poncey-Highland’s Flip Burger Boutique boasts valet service, with the most expensive cars parked out front. Or that a bill for two at Yeah! Burger routinely tops $40. One restaurant in London has even stacked its burger with gold leaf, lobster, caviar, and Wagyu beef. It’s perhaps the world’s most expensive burger, costing more than $1,700.

There’s an upside to this burger buzz: We are thinking more critically about our meat and how it’s sourced. Sure, it’s easy to kvetch about a $10 burger, but if it comes from a cow that lived on grass and not corn, which the federal government subsidizes, the cost is justified. But here’s my beef: Ordering “right” has become a mark of privilege that easily slides into self-satisfaction. It’s going to be a long slog to fix our country’s troubled food system. Perhaps we should save the trumpeting for when even the calls of “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have” presume decent, well-raised meat.

Of course, I’ll probably be a grandmother by then.

Just how much does a burger with fries cost these days?
Cost of Cook Out, the cheapest tested
Average price of all those tested
Cost of Rathbun’s, the most expensive

Back to 20 Best Burgers

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.