Burger secrets

Observations on fast food

One of the great lessons of Singapore for the rest of the world is that fast food need not be disgusting. This is not an unimportant lesson, because the fast-food industry is one of the world's largest, and half the British now seem to eat nothing else.

For the price of a hamburger, it is possible to eat a wide variety of delicious and instantly served Asian food in Singapore. The explanation of how this is possible cannot be low wages: workers in the Singapore fast-food industry are probably better off than their British counterparts. Certainly, they are mentally more alert.

In the circumstances, not merely the survival, but the world conquest, of the hamburger itself requires an explanation. It is certainly not one of man's greatest culinary achievements.

It is undoubtedly the case that culinary fashion is not wholly determined by the quality of the cooking or its end result. One of the more desirable effects of the collapse of the British empire was the retrocession of the worst cooking in the world. It is still possible, occasionally, to find it in outposts where happy memories of the British live on: for example, some years ago in a hospital in a former colony where I worked, the cook served a little expatriate boy a dish of fish boiled in custard, under the impression that this was the kind of thing that the British ate and liked. When the boy protested to his mother, she made him eat it all the same, because it was good for his character not to complain. He has grown up into a fine young man.

But as the British declined, the country with the second-worst culinary tradition in the world, America, ascended, and achieved a position of power and influence undreamt of by the British. The Americans' terrible food is now everywhere - I am writing this on the way home from Singapore, sitting in a shopping mall in Dubai, opposite a cafe with a pink neon sign advertising "the finest American pastries", which elegantly head-covered ladies are eating (nearby is a clothes shop for Russian prostitutes, catering to an expanding market). Needless to say, a fine American pastry is a contradiction in terms, but the cafe does a roaring trade.

If the Americans are the most technologically advanced nation in the world, can it be that they do not know so simple a thing as how to eat? Perhaps, therefore, if we ate a sufficient number of burgers and fries, we should propel ourselves to the forefront of human civilisation.

Not long ago, I was on a bus in Colombia in which a television had been installed to keep the passengers amused. One of the programmes between the soap operas was called Secrets of Nhora's Kitchen.

Nhora was an upper-class Colombian lady whose kitchen resembled a high-tech procedure room in a modern hospital, or something devised by Nasa.

She lived in a world of heavy make-up and stainless-steel surfaces, not typical, I should imagine, of the world of Colombian cooks.

Nhora obviously learnt her cooking in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. She displayed an implicit fear and dislike of natural ingredients, for not one was to be seen anywhere in her kitchen.

Needless to say, the result was deeply unappetising. However, the secret of Nhora's kitchen was not what it produced, but the hardware it contained. Because the latest technology means improvement, it followed that her food must be the best.

The hamburger has triumphed because it represents the modernity of the US, in whose power and wealth we should all like to share. Its triumph has nothing to do with its supposed speed, convenience or economy, because far better food can be produced with the same qualities.

The popularity of hamburgers is a manifestation of magical thinking. Eating them (or for that matter wearing baseball caps backwards, a custom that has reached the remotest regions of the globe) will bring the easy and abundant life that is man's inalienable birthright.

As for American egalitarianism, the freedom of every man to make what he can of himself soon leads to vast disparities of wealth and influence, and is more likely to be hated and feared than imitated. The constant striving for excellence, even in those things unworthy of the effort, is likewise discountenanced. We want the ease and wealth, but without the constant effort that produces them.

And so we are reduced to eating hamburgers and wearing baseball caps back to front. They are symbols, in our country, both of aspiration and resentment - a combination that can lead only to misery.