Should the First Lady Eat Burgers?

7/14/2011 22:05:59 PM

As the country now knows, First Lady and healthy-eating crusader Michelle Obama stepped into the new Washington, D.C., Shake Shack during lunch on Monday and ordered a hamburger, fries, a chocolate shake, and a Diet Coke. Almost before the cashier could say, “have a nice day,” a firestorm of controversy erupted over the news that the woman who spearheaded the anti-obesity “Let’s Move” campaign consumed a meal totaling 1,700 calories — the equivalent of a day’s worth of calories.

Critics labeled Mrs. Obama a hypocrite. They rebuked her for publicly raising awareness regarding the scourge of childhood obesity while privately enjoying a high cholesterol festival. Never mind that Mrs. Obama has stressed moderation and has also followed a laudable exercise regime, waking at 4:30 a.m. each morning to hit the treadmill and lift weights–-as evidenced by her chiseled arms. Predictably, a host of pundits weighed in, with many nutritionists pronouncing the occasional indulgence acceptable.

Ever since the days of Martha Washington, the clothes, causes, and careers of America’s First Ladies have been scrutinized. Lucy Hayes, the wife of President Rutherford Hayes, refused to serve alcoholic beverages, earning the wrath of the public who ruefully called her “Lemonade Lucy,” while Nancy Reagan and Jacqueline Kennedy were roundly admired for their reed-thin figures achieved through famously disciplined dieting (in the case of Mrs. Kennedy, reportedly aided by unsavory means such as deprivation and diet pills). Now, L’affaire Hamburger has made Mrs. Obama the target of a public attack across the blogosphere.

Perhaps Mrs. Obama’s critics might have softened their stance had they ever dined at a Shake Shack, long a magnet for the über-figure conscious celebrity and supermodel set in New York, before they took to their blogs. But I digress. In the ensuing kerfuffle one important point has been missed: What is more patriotic or more American than the hamburger? No doubt, even Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Kennedy occasionally indulged in comfort food. When Michelle Obama bit into her ShackBurger, she was engaging in an all-American pastime. It has been said that nothing influenced the culture and consciousness of 20th century America like the automobile – that is, nothing except the hamburger. After mom and apple pie, it is the most American of American cultural totems. What is a Fourth of July celebration without hamburgers grilling on the barbecue? As the late Charles Kuralt, the chronicler of all things Americana, once said, “You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars…”

Indeed, the hamburger holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. Every year citizens across the country engage in surveys and contests to name their favorite burger. It is a highly personal but serious business. Foodie bible Saveur dedicated an entire issue to the hamburger. On August 12, 2006, the “Hamburger Hearings” were held during the annual National Hamburger Festival in Akron, Ohio to determine once and for all one of the most bitterly contested issues: who invented America’s first hamburger? “There have been some classic trials in American history,” its organizers said, “however, never before has the question that everyone is afraid to address been brought to the courtroom…” The verdict: “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen in 1885 in Seymour, Wisconsin. The judgment, however, has yet to silence the debate.

In my book In-N-Out Burger, the French-born, Michelin-starred chef and New York restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who introduced the $32 gourmet burger, explained, “People care about burgers, and they will drive miles for the right burger.” As with Alexis de Tocqueville, sometimes it takes an outsider to help Americans understand themselves. When anti-globalization protesters attacked McDonald’s in his native France, Boulud remarked that they were “jealous.” He said the agitators “wished they could have invented McDonald’s.”

Speaking of McDonald’s, in April, the multinational fast-food behemoth announced that it had hired 62,000 people in one day, significantly boosting the country’s employment data. Last month, only 18,000 new jobs were added, this means that not only did the Golden Arches contribute more than half of April’s job growth (granted they were largely low-paying, hourly positions), the chain provided 70.96% more jobs in one day in April than the total number created two months later. According to the Wall Street Journal, the restaurant sector is one of the few industries showing job growth. It is expected to add 1.3 million jobs over the next decade.

With unemployment hovering at 9.2%, Mrs. Obama’s critical snipers may want to put down their weapons and pick up a burger. It just might be hamburgers that help prop up the anemic economy. America is land of the free, home of the Whopper, and increasingly the nation of the McJob.

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