Book Review: Burger by Carol J. Adams (2018)

March 8th, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Burger is in the Eye of the Beholder

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to violence against women, and actual violence against nonhuman animals.)

Toward the end of a very long evening in which Harold and Kumar overcome a variety of obstacles in their pursuit of a White Castle hamburger, Kumar makes a speech about the meaning of immigration to the United States. In his telling, hamburgers form the heart of being a citizen of the United States.

“So you think this is just about the burgers, huh? Let me tell you, it’s about far more than that. Our parents came to this country, escaping persecution, poverty, and hunger. Hunger, Harold. They were very, very hungry. They wanted to live in a land that treated them as equals, a land filled with hamburger stands. And not just one type of hamburger, okay? Hundreds of types with different sizes, toppings, and condiments. That land was America. America, Harold! America! Now, this is about achieving what our parents set out for. This is about the pursuit of happiness. This night . . . is about the American dream.”

The symbolism of the hamburger may seem fixed (equal to the entire United States), yet Kumar did not consume White Castle hamburgers in the movie scenes. The actor who plays Kumar, Kal Penn (Kalpen Suresh Modi) is a vegetarian and ate veggie burgers. Ten years before White Castle introduced a vegetarian slider to its customers, they custom-made veggie sliders for Penn to consume as Kumar.

Why do the history and technologies of violence central to the hamburger remain unacknowledged? The violence could be invoked as a reminder of masculine identity and conservatism, something [Michael] Pollan himself celebrates when he goes boar hunting. It could also have been claimed as part of the human identity.

True, the bovine is more pacific and in general less dangerous than a carnivore; killing a bovine might be seen as a less virile activity than killing carnivores. Still, a narrative of violence might have been developed to celebrate hamburger eating. The question becomes not how do we understand the violence at the heart of the hamburger, but why isn’t the hamburger celebrated for the violence at its heart?

Published by Bloomsbury, Object Lessons “is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” I was both surprised and a little exhilarated to see that the author of Burger, the latest addition to the series, is none other than ecofeminist Carol J. Adams, she of The Sexual Politics of Meat fame. If anyone could restore the absent referent – the 32.5 million+ cows slaughtered annually in the U.S. alone – to a conversation about hamburgers, it would be her.

Since this is my first experience with Object Lessons, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The book is both wider ranging and perhaps more scattershot than I anticipated. Particularly in the early chapters, Adams adopts a writing style that feels almost stream of consciousness, which often left me a feeling a little discombobulated. (To be fair, I read an early copy six months ahead of the release date; the finished copy will likely be a little more polished. This goes double for the weird and obviously incomplete formatting, which made the narrative even harder to follow.)

Adams brings a vegan-feminist perspective to the, ahem, table; your thoughts on this will likely vary according to your own dietary and ethical preferences. Personally, I loved it; I think Adams shines brightest when addressing the intersection of animal exploitation and misogyny, such as in chapter four, “Woman Burger”. (Pro tip: if you enjoyed this, definitely pick up The Pornography of Meat – which, imho, is much more accessible than The Sexual Politics of Meat, and thus perfect for newcomers to the topic.)

Even though I’ve read quite a lot of her previous work, it’s clear that there’s still so much to learn; her discussion of Seventh-day Adventists’ (led by women members) influence on early veggie burgers, as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s demand for day care and cooked-food services, proved fascinating. There are so many random little factoids (see e.g. barbed wire’s contribution to animal agriculture) sprinkled like tasty little morsels throughout Burger. Perhaps it requires a second reading to truly savor it all?

Yet what makes this book stand out is also what works against it: any book about the cultural significance of the hamburger that weighs in at a mere 160 pages (less if you exclude the references, which are many) is bound to feel incomplete. Still, it’s a compelling read, and just might encourage casual readers to explore some of Adams’s other work. (We can only hope!)

3.5 stars.


Table of contents

1. Citizen Burger
2. Hamburger
3. Cow Burger
4. Woman Burger
5. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Burger and Other Modernist Hamburger Identity Crises
6. Veggie Burger
7. Moon Shot Burger
Afterword: Slippage

List of Illustrations


(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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