A few years ago, I decided that it would be interesting to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Not just regular “from scratch,” but really from scratch. Like, I’d make the buns, I’d make the mustard, I’d grow the tomatoes, I’d grow the lettuce, I’d grow the onion, I’d grind the beef, make the cheese, etc.
It didn’t happen that summer, by the following summer, my wife and I had built a new house, started raising chickens, and established a pretty good-sized garden. I realized that my prior plan hadn’t been ambitious enough—that wasn’t really from scratch. In fact, to make the buns, I’d need to grind my own wheat, collect my own eggs, and make my own butter. And I’d really need to raise the cow myself (or sheep, and make lamb burgers), mine or extract from seawater my own salt, grow my own mustard plant, etc. This past summer, revisiting the idea, I realized yet again that I was insufficiently ambitious. I’d really need to plant and harvest the wheat, raise a cow to produce the milk for the butter, raise another cow to slaughter for its rennet to make the cheese, and personally slaughter and process the cow or sheep. At this point I was thinking that this might all add up to an interesting book, and started to consider seriously the undertaking.
Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.
A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.