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?”
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?
$2.38 Cost of Cook Out, the cheapest tested
$11.49 Average price of all those tested
$27.20 Cost of Rathbun’s, the most expensive
This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.