Selling 'em by the Sack

Lori Leibovich reviews 'Sellin' Em By the Sack' by David Gerard Hogan.

Published January 21, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Before the golden arches graced America, fast food's façade was a turreted white palace, where five-cent hamburgers were flipped late into the night by young men in immaculate, starched uniforms. White Castle burgers -- mini steam-grilled patties served on warm buns and smothered with grilled onions -- were America's first "fast food." How did a relatively small, Midwestern burger joint founded in the 1920s help christen the hamburger as America's own "ethnic" food? How did White Castle eventually usher in the age of sprawling fast food franchises? David Gerard Hogan's "Selling 'Em by the Sack" intends to be a culinary, social and corporate history -- one tall order.

White Castle did not invent the hamburger, Hogan writes, but made it palatable to Americans wary of ground meat in the age of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." White Castle co-founder Billy Ingram reassured customers that White Castle served quality burgers by situating grills in full view of customers; by stressing cleanliness and only hiring men with "high personal hygiene"; and by proving the nutritional value of the burgers through commissioned "studies." (In one, a student lived for 13 weeks on only White Castle burgers and water -- he ate about 20 burgers a day and thrived.)

Hogan, an associate professor of American history at Heidelberg College in Ohio, is clearly enamored with his subject -- at times his prose sounds like PR for the home office -- but amidst the gushing he makes a strong case for Ingram as a corporate pioneer, initiating such enduring business practices as keeping in touch with employees through spirited company newsletters, offering workers generous bonuses and benefits to inspire company loyalty and making sure that all his restaurants looked identical. It is when Hogan strays from his role as corporate historian to cultural one that he gets into hot water. "The hamburger is all around us on a daily basis consumed by many millions," he writes. "The fact that it is so close, so mundane, so unextraordinary is exactly what makes it so important and central to who we are as people."

Hogan's biggest blunder, though, may be his skimpy analysis of White Castle's discriminatory hiring policies. "Despite the constant labor shortage ... White Castle never tapped the abundant supply of available African American workers with the exception of one cleaning woman hired during World War II," Hogan writes in one of the only passages to examine White Castle's racist past. While White Castle never segregated its restaurants, the company was criticized for not hiring the blacks who overwhelmingly populated the city centers where most White Castles were located. "[After] a brief boycott in New York City in July 1963, White Castle actively started recruiting more black workers and soon achieved an acceptable racial balance." Hogan never defines "acceptable racial balance," or the repercussions of the boycott.

White Castle has survived the McDonald's-ization of America -- more than 300 restaurants remain. Hogan's most provocative claim -- that White Castle's longevity and success are due in part to its "cult" status (he likens White Castle devotees to Trekkies and Deadheads) -- comes at the end of the book and is backed with little evidence. Don't look for any interviews or quotes from these burger fanatics, because they're not here. We just have to take Hogan's word for it.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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