The Next Thing You Eat by David Chang: Burgers Episode
Having been around the world, from rural enclaves to urban metropolis’ – there is always an F&B establishment dubbed an “institution” that plays a pivotal role to the surrounding community. Peter Luger’s Steakhouse in Brooklyn, In-N-Out in California, Jai Fai in Bangkok, and countless others littered across the world in rural Peruvian villages, sprawling culinary destinations like New Orleans or Maine, and within micro-communities in the many sub-districts of Tokyo. There are restaurants, cafes, and bars that we deem an institution, if only to ourselves. Then there are those that rise above, they establish a reputation, and are widely recognized as an Institution with a capital “I”. The existence of these doesn’t have much to do with what I’m going to write, but my favorite burger joint needs to be viewed as an institution to express the impact it’s had on me, New Jersey, and burgers across the world.
Growing up in Northern New Jersey is a bit of a treat. I was exposed to authenticKorean food as early as kindergarten. I could walk to a corner Jewish deli or an Italian bakery. My favorite pizza slice in town was from Pomodoro, an Italian restaurant owned by Albanians. Kyungho Dong Baekgeong let me take a deep dive into high quality K-BBQ at 3pm or 3AM. A ten-minute drive to North Bergen and I had my pick of the cuisine of any Central or South American country, and I always knew it would be the real deal. Living in Asia now, I feel a longing nostalgia for a lot of the food I experienced living in Jersey. But the craving that comes most often, one that guides how I travel and seek out food experiences around the world, and one I give the most thought to stems from my love and affinity to White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey.
As a senior in high school we were allowed off campus for lunch – a blissful 42 minutes. White Manna was approximately a 34-minute drive return, if I took the speed limit signs on Route 4 as mere suggestions that gave us about 8 minutes to indulge in what White Manna does best – sliders. Operating since 1937, the restaurant serves, in my opinion, what is the quintessential burger. Bun, meat, cheese, onions – all in slider format. You pop in, place your order with the grill master who keeps everything in his memory (we typically called ahead), eat, and get out. The place is no more than 12 square meters in size, and they’re in the same structure that was put up nearly 100 years ago. On less rushed visits, I sit at the classic diner counter, inhaling the aroma of the sizzling beef layered with onions on top from the flap top directly visible in front of you. At any time, you can pop into a conversation with any of the staff or patrons as everyone is within 2 meters of each other. White Manna is a working-class eatery in the same way ramen bars exist for the working-class salaryman in Japan. While a YouTube video with Anthony Bourdain, Guy Fieri, Padma Lakshmi, or many other culinary influencers visiting the joint can depict just how good the slider is, the important takeaway here is White Manna has played a pivotal role to my burger journey, and overall love of food. And when you turn on the Burgers episode of David Chang’s The Next Thing You Eat, you’re greeted with Chang discussing burgers in the same exact establishment. White Manna has put me on a burger journey to the point where I comfortably refer to myself as a burger connoisseur, and I still visualize the building as if it were a shrine.
Having a love for the classic staple hamburger (well, I’m a cheeseburger kind of guy) means I’ve definitely consumed more beef than the average global citizen, or even most Americans of a similar age. Watching The Next Thing You Eat brought up elements of sustainability and the technology that exists in the current alternative protein space which created a bit of an ethical dilemma for me. “Well, are my consumption habits going to change anything?” “The world is going in a pretty bleak direction in other areas – do I really need to think how my diet impacts everyone as a whole?” I thought about some of these moral questions and did some digging on why we’ve just become so accustomed to ducking into a fast food joint for a burger when we are hungry and in a rush.
Post the industrial revolution, urban city centers had sprawled and became densely populated with the working class in blue collar labor. Suddenly, there was more demand to feed more workers. The assembly line format had been engrained in industries courtesy of Henry Ford, and from that was born White Castle, a hamburger stand utilizing an industrial assembly line format. Their detailed efficiencies, like square patties to utilize every corner of the griddle, helped deliver calorie-dense and affordable food quickly for a working-class lunch rush. This began to solidify the American burger as a staple in most people’s diets. Fast forward to the founding of McDonald’s when the American highway system was rapidly expanding, and before you know it fast food dominates both urban centers, and rural stops across the whole country. This creates pressure for a large demand for beef everywhere, but the main consumer is a typical working-class American, so costs must stay low. As politics and capitalism enter the industry, mass production of beef begins to necessitate the factory farming of cattle as well as the use of GMOs, chemicals, and other processed ingredients. And so, here begins our ethical dilemma.
In The Next Thing You Eat David Chang explains his reasoning in using alternate protein in a lot of his Momofuku Group’s concepts. Prior to having a son, he hadn’t given too much thought to the implications the current state of the beef industry has on both the environment and our health. Factory farming beef production creates a catastrophic impact from an environmental perspective, and what these cattle are being pumped with to drive bigger beef yields has a detrimental effect on our health. An educated consumer can opt for grass-fed and free-range beef to address both these issues with one decision. However, the dilemma goes back to the need for keeping costs low for these fast-food restaurants to provide affordable choices to the primary consumers –the lower and middle class. A bit of a problem if you ask me.
The economics of making grass fed, free-range cattle beef accessible to all, and integrated within fast food industry is simply unrealistic. The beef industry would not be able to make a switch of that nature, nor would the fast-food industry be able to handle the pricing discrepancy from that of mass-produced beef. Educated consumers who value the state of the globe in the future, and what quality of food they’re consuming are presented with that option, but the economic barrier is high –especially outside of the United States. That leads us to the role of alternate protein variants in the food ecosystems today. A lot of us have seen Impossible brand meats and Beyond Meat. They’ve certainly stirred quite the conversation amongst many parties – but are they the right alternative to solve this problem? In my opinion, yes and no. I think proactively moving away from conventional beef is important, and these alternatives help us lighten the load from an environmental factor. But unfortunately, the current technology that goes into creating and “cultivating” these lab grown meats result in a product that’s filled with GMOs and chemicals which are no different than those found around the world in factory farmed protein. Paired with the economic barriers that these alternative proteins hide behind, I truly think sticking to the grass-fed free-range option is the better choice as that’s what we’ve consumed for thousands of years, not Tertiary butylhydroquinone.
What are our next steps? What is the equilibrium to finding a balance between traditional beef and protein consumption, and utilizing new technologies to create the perfect harmony? Companies such as Impossible and Beyond have been able to synthesize meat but requiring the use of things most people shouldn’t be putting into their bodies. But companies such as Meati have developed processes to grow meat using the cells of the original animal. This eliminates the need to slaughter an animal for consumption and reduces the environmental impact significantly. The process is different from the way Impossible or Beyond create their alternative meat products, relying on natural processes from the protein cells of the animal to create an identical piece of meat, just within the scope of a laboratory environment. Today, Singapore is the only place in the world that has approved such a product for sale, and the costs and barriers to scaling this approach to alternative protein are still high. However, I’m hopeful as with all technology, we drive down costs and technological innovation allows for these processes at scale – where it makes an impact on both the environment, and our individual health.
We’re getting personal here, but unlike David Chang, I don’t have kids and do not want any. My main reason – the world isn’t heading in a great direction. I do however want to have a different sentiment one day, and my values align with that of: we should make decisions that leave the world a better place for future people, even if it’s for individuals we’ll never meet or interact with.I’d love to see new food & beverage technology help stabilize the climate crisis and reverse a lot of damage that we have done. I’d love for individuals to be educated about the chemicals and preservatives entering their body that shouldn’t be there. The best way forward is awareness that we can all make incremental, day-by-day decisions that influence industries and cultural norms regarding protein consumption. Will I eventually order a 24oz USDA Prime Porterhouse? Yes, probably at 2PM on a random Tuesday, because as most humans,I am wired to be innately selfish (and live in a place where I can’t typically get that – so when the opportunity presents itself, I’m jumping on it). But that doesn’t mean that I can’t make other decisions and sacrifices regarding my consumption habits. Sonic, the US fast food chain, recently launched a new burger that features a blend of 75% beef and 25% mushroom. Personally, due to my interest in the works of Paul Stamets and Michael Pollan I’ve had a fascination in the use of mushrooms in a medical setting, as well as their role in our diets. I tried the burger and I have to say – delicious. There’s really no reason for me to order the traditional 100% beef patty. I alone reduced my consumption of beef from Sonic by 25%. Now let’s say every other customer did the same. That would mean Sonic as a chain reduces their beef use by 12.5% across the board. Now a single individual’s decision is beginning to add up. Extrapolate that across the hundreds of fast-food chains in America, and all of a sudden, we’ve lowered a billion dollar industries’ reliance on beef by 12.5%. There’s no massive leap we can make to introduce these changes, but if our consumption habits gradually include incremental changes that benefit the planet and the individuals around us, well, you’ve got me on board