Climate change is coming for every aspect of our lives, if it hasn’t already. There will be tough compromises, heartbreaking disasters, moments of hope and loss, and either a mass rejection of filling the atmosphere with warming gases that destabilize our way of life or… not. Leading writers on the issue agree now is the time to take action; in his new book, David Wallace-Wells argues that avoiding or sitting out the crisis is a kind of climate change denial, too. I mean, I get it. But there is one thing I want to sit out: I do not want to argue about hamburgers.
If burgers have a fandom, count me as a longtime member. In college, I took field trips to try the obscure central Connecticut speciality, the steamed cheeseburger. On a cross-country drive, burger stands like Hires Big H in Salt Lake City were my preferred destinations. I take friends who visit Los Angeles to Father’s Office regularly, lovingly describing the Office burger (arugula, blue cheese, Gruyere, onion compote, no substitutions) on the way. My adopted hometown of Los Angeles is a burger town through and through — Pasadena claims to be the birthplace of the cheeseburger, which was dubbed, delightfully, “the Aristocratic Burger.” Maybe that’s why, despite my own convictions about the urgency of environmental action, I don’t want to fight about whether or not it’s moral to eat a hamburger, or how many hamburgers it might be acceptable to eat — and I certainly don’t want to cede hamburgers to partisans who want to reduce them to an emotional political weapon.
The trouble started, as it often has in 2019, with a hysterical, distorted reaction to a stray remark made by representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On Showtime’s Desus & Mero, Ocasio-Cortez explained that the Green New Deal would tackle the (nightmarish) environmental cost of factory farming. She said, “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like, let’s keep it real.” Republican representatives like Rob Bishop of Utah and Mark Meadows of North Carolina pounced on the line, claiming that Democrats sought to take away the nation’s defining ground-meat-patty sandwich. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump administration official with ties to far-right groups in Europe, declared the Democrats were out to fulfill Stalin’s long-held dream of taking away everyone’s hamburgers. (Stalin actually liked hamburgers so much he tried to rip them off, according to the Washington Post.)
These claims sound unhinged, and they warp the Green New Deal’s actual proposals to the the point of parody — possibly because, as Ocasio-Cortez told the New Yorker, there isn’t a good policy counterargument. Cheap meat enriches the few conglomerates that control its production, exploits slaughterhouse workers physically and psychologically, enacts needless animal cruelty, and racks up massive social costs in terms of poor nutrition, mass pollution, and resistant bacteria — and that doesn’t even get into methane’s contribution to destabilizing the climate. Democracy is still functioning well enough that politicians can’t argue with a straight face that all those costs are worth a 99-cent hamburger. So the move is to only talk about the hamburgers.
Ground-beef alarmism is a deeply emotional appeal — and “coming for your hamburgers” threatens to become an inescapable meme. Hamburgers are an iconic American food unlike any other; they embody the best and worst of 20th century America’s excessive, democratic, car-driven, deceptively simple, undeniably delicious food culture, and people love them very, very much. Various Republican politicians, including Donald Trump and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, have claimed (falsely) that the Green New Deal resolution seeks to ban airplanes, cars, and/or cows. Imagining the libs will take away your car or airplane ride, mixed experiences at best, or someone else’s ability to own a cow is not nearly as vivid and enraging as the image of someone snatching a hot, delicious hamburger out of your hand.
Republicans and other right-wing figures have been angling to make meat into a partisan issue for a few years now. Environmentalists and animal-rights activists often advocate for reducing meat consumption, banning factory farming, or adopting straight-up veganism for a host of laudable practical and moral reasons. Meanwhile, eating meat, especially red meat, has become increasingly linked to masculinity and right-wing politics (see the popular alt-right insult against insufficiently masculine men, “soy boy”). During the extraordinarily heated Texas Senate race in 2018, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz claimed if his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, won, he would “ban barbecue” after a Cruz campaign event was invaded by PETA. (O’Rourke, meanwhile, bolstered his Texas cred with a performative love for the local chain Whataburger. It remains to be seen what burger he’ll obsessively Instagram during his just-announced presidential run.)
Already, a partisan split is underway: The Economist found Democrats are more likely than Republicans to reduce their meat consumption. And PETA’s action at a Cruz rally demonstrates that there are those on the left who want to move the issue into the partisan realm, too. Leftist researcher and professional Overton window-mover Sean McElwee (he’s credited with moving the idea “Abolish ICE” into mainstream discourse) said on Twitter that he believes public opinion will shift, quickly and vociferously, against meat consumption, especially on the left. In the New Republic, writer Emily Atkin argues animal rights should become a central issue on the left, at the expense of, yes, eating hamburgers.
A liberal shift away from hamburgers is also, maybe, already happening, and not just because both at restaurants and in private homes, I’m eating more luxuriously cooked beans. Within trendy, urban food culture, which skews liberal, obscure vegetables and grain bowls dominate menus, and the burger tries to find its place in awkward ways. In contrast to the massive, bacon- and foie-gras-piled luxury burgers of the late aughts, the most fetishized burger in the food world is arguably Superiority Burger’s vegetarian patty, made with care and precision by former high-end pastry chef Brooks Headley. Other chefs, most notably David Chang, have celebrated the rise of fake, tech-accelerated meats, which may help break the iron grip of bad-quality, cheap beef in the American fast-food system, but, as vegan food writer Alicia Kennedy writes, still arise out of and support that industrial system, with a shockingly large markup compared to, say, a pound of lentils.
The only certified, meaty burger trend I’m aware of is the smashed burger, which represents both sides in the (goofy) In-N-Out/Shake Shack debate that flares up on social media. In Los Angeles, an unending wave of smashed-burger projects draw big crowds and lots of Instagram posts showing hands squeezing potato rolls that nestle mushed patties of beef. The smashed-burger technique, popularized by burger expert George Motz, is designed to maximize the amount of meat covered in an irresistible Maillard reaction crust. But it’s also notable that the trendiest actual meat burger, the one people are posting for the likes and following around one major, burger-loving American city, is a burger that has been forcefully smashed (punished?) on the griddle to a thinness that obscures how much meat is even in it. Just a few years ago, burgers were fleshy towers, their central support beam a jabbed steak knife.
In other words, the era of unquestioning meat veneration is over. Maybe there will be no burger war at all! But as American politics currently stand, the burger is in danger of becoming radicalized, reduced to another symbol for Which America You Support. And the idea that eating a burger could become a political performance, one that sends the message the planet should burn, makes me want to die. Agriculture promises to be one of the most challenging aspects of the economy to decarbonize, especially when it comes to meat production, which is linked into a much bigger (and still ugly) system. Focusing on what we eat, rather than how it’s produced, and all the labyrinthine trade-offs that production entails, threatens to boil down the transformative action needed to fight and survive climate change into a series of petty losses.
Ultimately, I think even suggesting cutting back on burgers, rather than upending industrial food, is a losing game. When I look at the last 40 years of American life, with the dual rise of factory farming and a secular, moral vegetarianism, I conclude that people like meat, and if meat is cheap and abundant, most won’t eat less of it, even if they know where it comes from, no matter how horrible that might be. Beef consumption fell in the U.S. during a recession and when beef prices were higher; meat consumption rose to record highs again in 2018. I struggle to imagine moral diets, at least those not underpinned by religious faith, working much better on a mass scale than other types of diets — food is emotional, and hunger has a way of making us do what it wants.
I offer my own flawed history here. In my late teens and early 20s, I was a vegetarian for very moral (Catholic guilt) reasons; at the moment, I try to eat less meat and better meat, not only for the environment and my health but also for pleasure (the expensive chicken at the farmers market tastes very good). But I live a coddled life, with resources to buy and cook an occasional fancy chicken or steak, and I draw the conscientious meat line at skipping, say, an enticing rotating trompo on the streets of LA, because I want to be a part of the daily life of my city. What I would really like to do is join together with other Americans to enact systemic change, not just invest in a self-absolving conscientiousness. This movement would acknowledge that burgers might become rarer, or at least more rarely made with 100 percent ground meat. It could also make room for the everyday hypocrisy — and pleasure — of eating one.
Guilt is poor fodder for solidarity. If the eating or not-eating of burgers, or the eating of certain kinds of burgers, devolves into partisan political performance, I worry the omnivorous among us will become what we eat — dead meat.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.