In the heart of what might be the most celebrated cuisine in the world, a curious thing is happening: people are clamoring for an unglamorous American food. "Le hamburger," as it's called in France, has bombarded restaurants in the country otherwise known for much fancier food, becoming one of the most popular dishes. The love is such that three quarters of all food establishments now sell at least one hamburger, and 80 percent of those say it's their best-selling item, according to a recent study.
But France's hamburger fixation is hardly unique. Rather, it's emblematic of what has proved to be a common affair.
Just ask those who live in Australia, where people ingest nearly three times as many hamburgers per capita as they do in France (albeit with strange things on top). Or the British, who, let's face it, have pretty questionable taste in food, but still appreciate hamburgers more. Even the Russians appreciate them at least as much.
Or better yet, look to the hamburger's birthplace, where the sandwich has been defying major food trends for quite some time.
Ever since the mid-1970s, beef consumption has been tumbling in the United States, falling from a peak of 94 pounds per person per year in 1976 to 54 pounds in 2014, according to government data. Over the past 15 years alone, per capita beef consumption has dipped by 20 percent (and meat consumption has fallen off a cliff).
But hamburgers have done just the opposite, gaining in popularity even as Americans lose their taste for the broader beef and meat categories. A stroll through the archives uncovered a 1979 article by the Associated Press, which cited significantly lower per capita hamburger consumption than the 30 hamburgers per capita observed today, according to NPD Group. This is what it said:
"According to industry and government estimates, there will be 17.2 pounds of hamburger produced this year for every person in the country. In 1978, there was 20.5 pounds of hamburger per capita; in 1976, there was a record 23.9 pounds per capita."
The year 1976 is a nice marker, both because of what happened then (it was, at the time, a record year for hamburger and beef consumption) and what has happened since (the two have clearly diverged). Today, we eat much less beef but many more hamburgers - about six extra burgers per person, or roughly 30 percent more than we did back then.
Those who have abandoned meat, or at least tried to, have likely found themselves pining for a hamburger -- and then acting upon the craving. Clearly they are not alone. I certainly have.
There are other ways in which hamburgers seem to move against the stream. In recent years, for instance, they have shown resilience despite a tempered interest in sandwiches. In 2014, restaurants sold 2 percent fewer sandwiches than they had the year before, but 3 percent more hamburgers, according to a report by NPD Group.
"Americans simply love their burgers," Bonnie Riggs, who is NPD's restaurant industry analyst, explained at the time.
The appeal of the hamburger owes to many things, the first of which is that it is a delicious meal. "It took the apple thousands of years to become the most widely distributed fruit tree in the world, whereas the hamburger established itself within half a century in almost every capital city," Louise Fresco explains in his 2015 book "Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat," alluding to the hamburger's near ubiquitous appeal.
The fact that hamburgers can be reproduced effortlessly and without compromising quality has helped too, propelling its rise, at the very least. This, Fresco touches upon, too:
"What made McDonald's, Burger King, Jack in the Box, the once ubiquitous White Castle, and their like such successful companies was not the hamburger itself, nor the franchise system that has enabled it to penetrate all markets, but the systems and technology used to ensure that identical hamburgers would roll off production lines all over the world to be served to a public that knew exactly what to expect."
The hamburger has also shown resilience because it is malleable. While its base components - lettuce, tomato, ground meat, and bread - are simple and cheap, it has thrived because of how adaptable it is to change. This has proven particularly important as of late, as the enthusiasm for chains like Shake Shack has supplanted the long-held allegiance to less shiny establishments like McDonald's. More expensive versions of the hamburger, meanwhile, have become staples on restaurant menus, incorporating different meats and adding pricier accoutrements. In Fresco's words:
"The history of the hamburger is the story of a continual quest to reinvent a food item by sophisticated means, leaving the end product apparently unchanged and therefore completely dependable for the consumer while almost invisibly introducing one innovation after another."