- Selling ‘em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food
Foreigners attacking American cultural imperialism routinely zero in on fast-food hamburgers and “McDonaldization” as its most prominent symbols. Although pizza, as adapted and popularized by Americans, is a much more pervasive American product, both at home and abroad, the fast-food hamburger has become the quintessential symbol of modern America. David Hogan’s history of White Castle, the first of the hamburger chains, helps explain how this came to be so.
At the beginning of this century ground meat had as bad a reputation for health and taste as frozen fish and foods. Yet while frozen foods had to await the marketing genius of Clarence Birdseye in the 1930’s and 1940’s, ground meat found its apostle in a Midwestern businessman named “Billy” Ingram. As another Midwesterner, Roy Kroc, would some years later, Ingram came across a man who had developed an efficient system for selling small hamburgers at a low price (a nickel). In this case it was not in California, but in Wichita, Kansas, and the man, Walter Anderson, overcame the prevalent fears of ground beef by grinding the meat and preparing the burgers in full view of the customers in scrupulously clean surroundings. Ingram financed the chain’s expansion eastward into other cities and standardized its methods. He helped develop a system for building the small white-turreted stands so that they could be easily disassembled and moved to react to the vicissitudes of the industrial areas in which most were situated, and eventually bought out Anderson. His staff were rigorously trained in hygiene and friendly service. No matter what the location, they produced identical hamburgers (now from patties supplied by large packers) topped with [End Page 188] fried onions and a slice of pickle. In the course of this, Hogan argues, Ingram created the modern fast food industry and turned the hamburger into America’s first “ethnic food.”
Hogan concedes that the first of these claims is based, not so much on White Castle’s success—it never became more than a medium-sized regional operation—but on its much more successful imitators, particularly the White Tower chain, which quite unashamedly appropriated practically everything from the White Castle method (although it far surpassed Ingram’s rather amateurish-looking designs with sleek Art Deco architecture.) Nor did it originate the emphasis on sanitation (entrepreneurial restaurateurs cashing in on turn-of-the-century bacteria-phobia were cladding their establishments in white tile long before) or standardization—chains with predictable menus were no longer novelties. Indeed, once he had developed his system, Ingram became remarkably resistant to innovation, refusing to go along with White Tower and his other competitors and franchise. As Hogan freely admits, it was thus Ingram’s imitators who played the major role in making the hamburger sandwich popular in the rest of the country.
To question whether any of these systems really represented “fast food” would mean engaging in fruitless disputation over the definition of the term. One wonders, though, about the claim that by the end of the 1920’s the hamburger had become America’s first “ethnic food.” Hogan argues that by the early twentieth century the British-American cuisine that had hitherto been the dominant fare was being undermined by immigration from abroad and internal migration. The hamburger, riding the nationalizing, homogenizing, influences of the 1920’s—the mass media, the automobile, and so on—thus emerged as the new all-American food.
Again, one can question this formulation. It glides rather too easily over the incredibly complex question of the nature of American food habits without delving into any of the details of who ate what and where, including at White Castle. It is even more questionable in light of the next chapter, on the 1930’s, which makes the (rather unconvincing) claim that by hiring a female promotion manager to act as a “Betty Crocker”-style spokesperson, White Castle popularized hamburgers among...