Food Authorities: The Burger Foundation and the Sources of Expertise

Curator's Note

As eaters, we’re bombarded by information about food: what’s good for us, what’s not, what’s the right amount, what’s too much or too little.  Because that the FDA suspended all of its regular safety inspections due to the recent government shutdown, we’re now hearing about what foods might make us sick.  Food experts, institutes, and organizations abound, and the daily newspapers and nightly news regularly digest their studies and spit out attention-grabbing headlines: “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce,” “The Instagram Diet: Looking at Pictures of Food Curbs Appetite, Study Finds,” “Yale Study Asks Whether Gender Dictates Food Choices.”  We’re constantly hearing about the latest findings.  We may note, almost in passing, that these findings are associated with places such as Standford and Yale, but we don’t spend much time thinking about the nature and structure of this authority.  We’re more interested in whether gawking at food pics online can help us loose five pounds.

This focus shifts with a visit to The Burger Foundation.*  Here the problem isn’t one of food production, health, or behavior, at least not according to the typical views taken by experts.  No, the problem is routine.  The way we interact with hamburgers has become too predictable.  “Not very exciting, same every time,” says The Foundation’s creator, dancer and performance artist Michelle Ellsworth.  The Foundation, she explains, is "dedicated to the reevaluation of the relationship between hamburgers and humans."  She and the other “experts” at the Foundation are engaged in “studying, evaluating, and evolving, this relationship.”  This undertaking involves a number of witty, vibrant, burger-inspired performance pieces, from burger rituals to burger transformations.  These pieces, while showing all that artists can do with a patty and a bun, also raise the question of how food foundations, institutes, and other organizations work.  This, after all, is no foundation we’d find at Stanford or Yale.  The Burger Foundation may imitate those authoritative sources, but it doesn’t give us the sort of content we’ve come expect from them.  Instead, it skewers and exposes and delightfully defamiliarizes our relationship not only to burgers, but also to food experts and the information we get from them, headline after headline.

*Note: As of the date of this posting, the link to The Burger Foundation is broken; this link opens to an article about it that includes more video.


Thank you, Eric, for the unique media artifact. The Burger Foundation takes the discussion of Food Media in an interesting direction and nicely concludes the week. As you point out, the Burger Institute does a good job of defamiliarizing the typical relationship most consumers have to food information and experts.It strikes me that most people will not recognize the way this critiqued relationship between food experts and consumers functions in their own lives--what to make of someone putting a hamburger inside a stuffed pink bird? But leaving questions of audience and impact aside, there is still something interesting to grapple with in what the Burger Foundation is doing. As Eric points out, in Ellsworth's introduction to the foundation, she notes that there is consistent and boring script that dictates our relationship to burgers, ones that the foundation is interested in reevaluating and evolving. The choice of the hamburger as the food of focus is interesting. On the one hand, there is some clearly recognized truth in the notion that our (American consumers, most likely) relationship to the food has become predictable. On the other hand, it is just this predictability that should make the hamburger beyond the scope of need for food experts. Afterall, don't we need experts to help us with those things we can't figure out for ourselves? I'm reminded of Michael Pollan's introduction to "Omnivore's Dilemma," where he writes extensively about the fadishness of American food culture. He argues that Americans need food experts because we have so few food traditions to anchor our food choices. In the absence of such traditions, we find ourselves floating in too vast a see of choices, and reach out to experts to help moor us. Here Pollan's argument resembles sociologist Anthony Giddens' concept of the post-traditional self-reflexive state. Contrary to traditional societies, where identity and behaviors are constrained by larger social forces, post-traditional societies make few choices for individuals, leaving them to self-reflexively choose their own identities and shape their own behaviors. If we take Pollan's argument about American food behaviors are true, then the Burger Foundation's mock attack on the predictable script of burger-eating is perfectly aimed at one of the few foods for which Americans have a tradition. While this has the potential to call into question our relationship to food experts and information, it may also further unmoor us from the traditions of burger-eating, making us even more reliant on "experts" to tell us what and how to eat. Again, interesting object and post, Eric, thank you.

Thanks Eric for sharing this piece with us. I hadn't heard of the Burger Foundation and now I’m itching to show these clips to students; the sheer weirdness factor of the burger burials can’t but generate discussion, even of the confused sort. I’m also interested in the choice of the burger as a food that needs re-evaluation. True, the burger, as one of the few foods with a history long enough to deem it quintessentially American, runs on a tradition/script that may be read as boring or predictable. But this predictability is precisely what seems to be driving recent foodie trends to recast burgers as trendy cuisine. I’m mostly thinking about this recent scandal (, but also about how some fast-food chains and new start-ups are currently elevating burgers with choicer cuts of meat and specialty toppings. I can only imagine the burger challenges that have taken place on Top Chef and the like. In short, it seems like there has been a lot of “experimentation” with burgers recently, and that the Burger Foundation may be playing on/critiquing that discourse. Compared to Ellsworth’s decidedly outré performance, the reconfiguration of the burger in forms like the cronut is remarkably staid; in that sense, it seems like Ellsworth/the Burger Foundation are pointing out a sort of empty experimentation with food—one that dresses itself up as a radical rethinking of what/how we eat, but really just advances more of the status quo with fancy toppings. To tie this back to your reading, I wonder how we weigh the dominant voices of foodie culture (celebrity chefs, mostly) against those of "expert" food scientists backed by powerful institutions? While these two groups seemed unrelated or even at odds a decade ago, the way we currently understand them seems much more complicated and intimately connected.

Sarah and Aaron, thank you for these thoughtful and incisive responses to my post. I think you're both right that the charge from the pieces on The Burger Foundation comes from the fact that the burger is one of the few "traditional" American foods and that we're in a culinary moment in which less outré artists are messing with it. Here, as we've seen throughout the week, food resonates and ramifies well beyond our tables. Instead of taking up the burger, which Josh Ozersky has done in his fine history, I'll close this week's reprise with another of Michelle Ellsworth's wonderful pieces, one that asks us to "remix" how we think not only about burgers, but also food itself:

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