Many of us have mixed feelings about the hamburger. We know it isn't the most healthful of foods, but as soon as a burger hits the grill, our hearts race and mouths water in anticipation.
Two recent books highlight our worst fears and most decadent fantasies about the beefy treat: "Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America" by Morgan Spurlock, director of the film "Super Size Me," and "Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story" by food historian John T. Edge.
Spurlock became the archenemy of McDonald's with his Oscar-nominated 2004 film in which he documented the results of his monthlong, McDonald's-only diet - an expanded waistline and blood work that almost brought his doctor to tears.
"Don't Eat This Book" covers territory already familiar to those who have seen the movie, as it ticks off statistics on America's trend toward increasing corpulence and argues that the food industry's marketing efforts are a big part of the reason we so often belly up to the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Although some of this was covered by Eric Schlosser in his 2001 book "Fast Food Nation," Spurlock puts his own quirky spin on the dry statistics. He shows the growing costs the airline industry incurs having to carry our increasingly bulky bodies, and he interviews Subway sandwich shop pitchman Jared Fogel to learn how he really lost all that weight.
He also takes a new swipe at McDonald's, chiding the company's global reach in a passage on the franchise in Dachau near the Nazi Germany concentration camp.
But "Don't Eat This Book" doesn't focus only on McDonald's or even on fast food. Spurlock's target is the culture of consumerism and the advertising industry that encourages us to want more and more things, from the time we first listen to radio or watch TV.
"Yet none of the stuff we consume - no matter how much bigger our SUV is than our neighbor's, no matter how many Whoppers we wolf down, no matter how many DVDs we own or how much Zoloft we take - makes us feel full, or satisfied or happy," he writes.
Spurlock's rants are substantive and provocative, but he is smart enough to serve them up with a side of wit, which makes this book go down as easily as his film. He urges readers to "vote with your fork" against the big corporations he claims are ruining our food, something it's easy to imagine Edge agreeing with.
There's not a fast-food joint in sight in "Hamburgers and Fries," Edge's cross-country road trip to find the most unusual, most delectable burgers. It's a celebration of the American fare served up in mom-and-pop diners, greasy spoons and roadside stands.
Edge samples regional favorites: Wisconsin's burgers drenched in butter, South Carolina's pimento cheeseburgers, Connecticut's steamers, and rural Mississippi's "slug" burgers, made mostly of soy meal or flour.
With a foodie's palate and a Southerner's flair for storytelling, Edge is a charming companion as he rambles through the surprisingly controversial history of the burger - at least four states claim to be its birthplace - and tries to determine what this American icon says about us as a culture.
Mostly, though, he describes how a really great burger should taste:
"I want to hear the low hiss of a patty hitting a flattop. I want to smell the caramel sweetness of onions frying. I want to scald my tongue on a goldenrod slice of American cheese as it trails down the craggy circumference of that patty."
Vote with your fork, Edge seems to agree, and choose a place with some character.
"Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story." By John T. Edge. Putnam. 192 Pages. $19.95.
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