It's been a rocky week for the USA. We were let down by our Supreme Court and our soccer team, and we head into a potentially hurricanous Independence Day licking our wounds and pondering our mistakes and just kidding, we fucking RULE, and that's partly due to geographic good fortune and relatively sound governance, but mostly due to how kick-ass we are at hamburgers.
The hamburger was probably invented in New Haven in 1900; it was definitely popularized at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. (The good and other people of St. Louis didn't get their Arch until 1965, though, which wrecks the McDonald's "Manifest Burger Destiny" angle I was going to try to cram in here). That makes hamburgers very American.
It is widely reported that our great nation puts away 50 billion burgers a year, which works out to about three per person per week. This number could well be the sort of bullshit fake stat that lazy journalists like to repeat just for the hell of it—does it really seem plausible that we each eat a half a burger a day? What about all the vegetarians and the religiously restricted and the people who know better than to eat filthy ground beef? Do the rest of us gross, happy fucks really eat enough to counteract their abstinence? MAYBE. There could be a greasy army of several hundred thousand hamburger super-users who have at least a couple every single day. God, I hope so. Those people would be living very nice, short lives.
However the math shakes out, we adore hamburgers, for obvious reasons. And though many of us pretend to be above cruddy old-school fast-food chains, McDonald's Big Mac and Burger King's Whopper continue to be the two most iconic hamburgers in the game. Let's see which one is better, and in so doing determine which is the Most Important Hamburger in All the Land.
The Big Mac
The first thing a lapsed Big Mac eater will notice is how reasonably sized it is. At 3.75 inches in diameter and 2.75 inches tall, the 550-calorie Big Mac surely represented one hell of a giant sandwich when it was introduced in suburban Pittsburgh in 1967, but in these fatter times, it appears almost dainty. Its 7.6 ounces are made up of 3.2 ounces (precooked weight) of beef spread over two tiny patties, plus a few shards of iceberg lettuce, some dehydrated onion bits, two limp pickle slices, a slab of yellow cheese, Special Sauce, and quite some bit of bun. Doesn't sound like much. But friends, the Big Mac is so much better than the sum of those lame parts.
The bun is great. OK, it's just a regular burger bun with some sesame seeds. But the one in question was fresh and lively, and even though the extra shelf of bread between the burger patties is an unnecessary, club-sandwich-y anachronism in a modern fast-food world that seeks to replace bread with more meat at every opportunity, I approve. The burger doesn't exactly scream "recently deceased and carefully prepared cow," but it's identifiably beefy. The pickles are garbage, and the lettuce and onions fail to make much of an impression one way or the other.
The Special Sauce—a thousand-island variant consisting of mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, mustard, vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika (just for show)—sets the Big Mac apart. It's a subtle sauce by today's donkey-kickin' standards, creamy and mostly calm, but piquant enough to make itself known above the lackluster vegetables and the decent cheese. I can't imagine enjoying it in any other setting, but it's the perfect complement to the rest of the Big Mac.
Oh man, that sounds an awful lot like pseudo-critical nostalgia-mongering, but I swear I have no (known) biases toward or against the Big Mac. It wasn't an integral part of any phase of my life, I don't associate it with Little League or evil stepdads or rainbowed days at the beach. Big Macs don't really mean shit to me, I just like them.
The Whopper is 10 years older than the Big Mac, though it's undergone many reconfigurations since its 1957 debut. The current version is much larger than the Mac: At 4.75 inches in diameter, 2.5 inches tall, and 10.6 ounces in total weight, it's nearly 50 percent larger than the competition. It's also more expensive—a Whopper with cheese set me back $5.39 to the Big Mac's $3.79—and packs 710 calories, pushing it to the upper reaches of single-meal feasibility for even the moderately health-conscious. But fuck it, we didn't come here to do math, we came here to eat a quarter-pound beef patty wedged between a sesame-seed bun with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, ketchup, mayonnaise, and cheese.
The bun is nearly identical to the Big Mac's. The lettuce and pickle components were both superior. Who cares about the lettuce, but the four sturdy chips of ridged pickles actually made a relevant contribution to the sandwich, unlike the weenie green disks on the Big Mac. The onions were better, too: rings of real, sweet white onion, though I would have preferred a few more than the two provided. The tomatoes were pretty and healthy-looking and, in a fast-food rarity, actually managed to kick in a tiny bit of flavor.
The cheese didn't make any impression, so next time I'll just skip it and save the 40 cents and 70 calories. The prominently beefy meat wasn't inferior to the Big Mac's from a straight flavor perspective, but BK's much-ballyhooed but ultimately misguided insistence on flame-broiling produces too dry a burger, which means the Whopper is overly reliant on the moisturizing properties of mayonnaise. I don't really care for mayo in most applications, but it doesn't unilaterally wreck a sandwich for me. I can deal with the stuff. But not when it's an overdose of industrial goo sloshing around an otherwise-desiccated hamburger.
I realize that personal mayo-tolerance is a huge variable, so I'm careful not to let my own feelings cloud my judgment. But this Whopper was over-condimented by any measure, which sogged out the bread and exacerbated the floppiness inherent in such a broad-bunned sandwich. A Whopper is a fine thing, but the issues with its structural integrity really stand out against the background of an otherwise unremarkable hamburger that lacks the panache of, say, a Special Sauce or a superfluous layer of bread.
Winners: Big Mac / America
Fourth of July Weekend Bonus: 36 Cheep American Beers, Ranked
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.
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