by Quinn Myers
From ‘pink slime’ to bug burgers, a look at the quintessential American meal
For most of the world, the symbol most associated with America isn’t the bald eagle, George Washington or even the stars and stripes—it’s the hamburger and fries. But how much has this simple meal — a ground-beef sandwich with fried potatoes — changed since its glory days of the 1950s? Let’s find out.
1950s: According to Andrew Smith, author of The Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food, the quality of hamburger meat was so bad in the early 20th century that by the 1950s, customers needed reassuring that what they were getting was actual meat. “Heading into the ‘50s, White Castle had beef slabs delivered to each outlet a couple times a day,” Smith says. “It was ground up in front of any customers in the store to assure everyone that their beef did come from a cow, as opposed to a variety of meat and other products from other slaughtered animals.”
So during the burger’s heyday, most people could feel confident that they were, in fact, getting 100 percent ground beef, while the fries were exactly as advertised: Potatoes, sliced in the restaurant and fried in animal oil.
Today: In 2008, a study by Brigid Prayson of the Cleveland Clinical Foundation tried to find out whether it was even possible for America to produce as much beef as was apparently being consumed — an interesting question, considering that there are fewer cattle being raised now than in the 1970s, and yet we’re eating more beef than we were then. The answers weren’t encouraging, and a test of a variety of fast-food burgers found that the amount of real meat in burgers ranged from just 2 to 14 percent. The rest was made up of what has become known as “pink slime,” or in the words of the study, “a mash of connective tissue, blood vessels, peripheral nerve, plant material, cartilage and bone.”
This nauseating goop was then doused in ammonium hydroxide, an antimicrobial agent once classified by the Department of Agriculture as “generally recognized as safe,” though the practice is banned in the European Union. McDonald’s and other chains have since claimed that they no longer use the stuff, but after a brief public backlash, it has crept back into grocery stores, with a 2014 study claiming that up to 70 percent of the ground beef sold in stores contains the dreaded pink slime.
The meat isn’t the only thing chock-full of chemicals now, either. A quick look at the fry ingredients listed on McDonald’s website reveals not just potatoes but rather a dozen different things, including chemicals with such appetizing names as sodium acid pyrophosphate (that’s the one that maintains their friendly yellow color). Essentially, most of the water in the fries has been replaced with fat, and a bunch of chemicals are added to make them taste like they were fried in animal fat, rather than the mix of corn and soybean oil they’re actually fried in.
1950s: “The combo of french fries and burgers as a meal became solidified during World War II, since meat was rationed and you needed to bolster what small amount of it you had with something else,” says Smith. How small exactly were the burgers? In 1950, the average burger weighed just 3.9 ounces—not so much bigger than a modern-day White Castle slider, at 2.2 ounces, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For their part, an average order of fries weighed roughly 2.4 ounces.
Today: As rationing came to an end, burgers began to fatten up. “Chains like Burger King came along offering bigger burgers with more meat, and the increased competition led to an arms race of the sizes and the styles of burgers,” Smith says. As a result, the average fast-food burger has quadrupled in size since the 1950s and now stands at a gut-busting 12 ounces. Fries, meanwhile, have nearly doubled in size, weighing in at 6.7 ounces (again according to the CDC)…