May is National Hamburger Month, and the industry hopes you'll forget all about last month, when a Utah man attracted publicity by claiming he had a 14-year-old McDonald's hamburger that has never been refrigerated yet looks like new — no mold, no decomposition. He said he had the July 7, 1999, receipt and that the burger spent its first few years forgotten in a pocket. McDonald's officials saw no cause for concern, theorizing that the burger looked like new because it was dehydrated, not embalmed in scary preservatives. Here are 10 juicy facts about hamburgers. Please pay attention — you'll be grilled for the answers.
1 Americans eat an astounding 48 billion burgers a year, or about three per week per person. While burgers are pretty cheap, getting them to our table isn't. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, 6.5 pounds of greenhouse gases are produced to make one tasty quarter-pounder. Over a year, that's equal to 34 coal-fired power plants. If you were willing to give up one burger a week, it would be like not driving your car 350 miles.
2 When amateur pilots say they're going for "a $100 hamburger," they mean they're taking a short jaunt for pleasure, often winding up at an airport restaurant. The $100 refers to the cost of fuel to get there, not the cost of the burger.
3 People frustrated with their careers might take comfort in the fact that McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc was a late bloomer who didn't get into the hamburger business until he was past age 50. Before that, the Oak Park native was a soda fountain worker, ambulance driver, bordello piano player, stock-market board operator, cashier, paper cup salesman, radio DJ and milk-shake-mixer salesman.
4 The privately owned In-N-Out Burger chain is famous for discreetly printing Bible citations on its cups and burger wrappers. The company's image could have gone another way. The company chairman's older brother, Guy Snyder, had just received an order of T-shirts featuring an illustration of a girl sitting on top of the chain's famous Double-Double burger when the Bible idea was unveiled. The T-shirts never made it out of their boxes.
5 Investment guru Warren Buffett has an unusual health food regimen: "It's amazing what Cherry Coke and hamburgers will do for a fellow," he once wrote. The billionaire thinks broccoli, asparagus and Brussels sprouts look "like Chinese food crawling around on a plate," and adds: "I don't even want to be close to a rhubarb, it makes me want to retch." He especially hates it when one of those despised vegetables brushes up against his hamburger on a plate.
6 When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the White House in 2008, President George W. Bush cited the hamburger as proof that they were getting along. "Look," Bush said, "if there wasn't a personal relationship, I wouldn't be inviting the man to (have) a nice hamburger. Well done, I might add."
7 Marty's Hamburger Stand in west Los Angeles is "home of the combo" — that's a hamburger and sliced hot dog on the same bun.
8 One of the most memorable battles of the Vietnam War was the U.S. assault on Ap Bia Mountain, aka Hill 937, aka "Hamburger Hill." Gen. William Westmoreland refused to use the slang name, which was coined by his troops. The common explanation is that the hill got that name because the attack was a "meat-grinder," with heavy casualties. Others note the similarity to the Korean War's Battle of Pork Chop Hill, another vicious battle with little strategic significance.
9 The White Castle hamburger franchise, which claims to be the oldest, originated in Wichita, Kan., but it has a Chicago connection — its buildings were loosely modeled after the Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue.
10 In the quirky slang of short-order cooks, a hamburger was known as "choked beef" and "a grease spot." To cook one was to "brand a steer," and to add a slice of onion was to "pin a rose" on it. A less cheery term came from U.S. prisons, where a hamburger was known as a "Gainesburger," named after Gaines-burgers dog food.
SOURCES "Casell's Dictionary of Slang" edited by Jonathan Green; "Hash House Lingo" by Jack Smiley; "Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's" by Ray Kroc with Robert Anderson; "The Hamburger: A History" by Josh Ozersky; "Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food" by Andrew F. Smith; "Hamburger America" by George Motz; "Selling 'Em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food" by David Gerard Hogan; "The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life" by Alice Schroeder; Time; Los Angeles Times; The Washington Post; Tribune archives; Center for Investigative Reporting; snopes.com
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the Tribune's weekend editor.