Cookbooks - Burger bonanza

We are, at this very moment, in the midst of a burger renaissance, begins John T. Edge in Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story (Putnam, $19.95), the third in his four-part homage to foods that shape our national identity. Burgers, Edge asserts, embody the dominant contradictions that typify our culture: "egalitarian and exclusive; aspirational and practical; heterogeneous and homogeneous."

But don't get the idea that the book is all theory and no action. After a brief foray into burger history that starts with Genghis Khan and meanders through America's 19th- and 20th-century fairs and festivals (oft quoted as the nexus where patty met bun), Edge hits the road.

In his cross-country travels, Edge seems to unearth every conceivable permutation of burger - with its time-honored primary ingredient, that is. Edge makes sure to clearly state in the book's appendix that "a burger is made with beef. ... Vegetarians are welcome to read along and indulge in a bit of gustatory voyeurism. Just don't think you can convert me to your ways. You children will grow old and gray trying to convince me that a charred portobello mushroom packs the savor of a hunk of seared cow flesh." Hear, hear.

Edge's traditionalist approach puts no limits on his breadth of discovery. We learn about onion-griddled burgers in Oklahoma, dough burgers from Mississippi, the Jucy Lucy (a cheese-stuffed variation) in Minneapolis, Miami's fritas and east L.A.'s take on the chili burger. His honest, first-person commentaries (he didn't much like dough burgers) are woven into tales and conversations with the folks who both preserve classic local burgers and take pride in their innovations.

Fries, or "golden splinters" as Edge calls them, get a succinct but thorough exploration near the book's end. This is really a love letter to the hamburger.??

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