When is a hamburger just a hamburger?

    In the rush to capitalize on the healthy, natural, home grown food movement, the language to describe dishes in restaurants has been somewhat… inventive.
    That’s the story WHYY’s Chris Satullo explores in this week’s “Center Square.”

    Listen: [audio: satullo20090712.mp3]

    Before ordering at a restaurant the other day, I perused a menu that extolled its hamburgers as “hand-crafted.”

    Hand. Crafted. Really? Seriously?

    Well, those McDonald’s patties clearly get stamped out on an assembly line, so I guess the distinction is plausible. But what exactly is so enticing about the promise that some stubby fingers molded your particular clump of ground-up cow into the familiar shape?

    I don’t usually think of contact with human hands as adding that je ne sais quoi of delectability to my burger.

    Still, there it was on the menu, as a point of pride: hand-crafted. It almost makes one feel unworthy of ingesting such a lovingly shaped example of artisanal kitchen craft. I mean, think of what you’re about to do to your hand-crafted burger. It’s doomed to be tooth-masticated, throat-swallowed, gut-digested and then… well, you know the end result. It’s alimentary, my dear Watson.

    How did hand-crafting a burger become a selling point? Apparently, in this scared moment, when the wages of mass-produced excess have become so apparent, consumers thirst for anything that smacks of the simple, the authentic.

    At my advanced age, I should no longer be surprised by how unblushingly the American marketer will sling meaningless hype. When the damage is merely that we might be seduced into paying $15 for one lousy hamburger (c’mon, honey, it’s hand… crafted!), perhaps we can shrug it off.

    But this penchant cheapens language. It bleaches useful words of vital shadings and hues. Worse, it impedes clear thinking – which depends on precise, rigorous use of language.

    Cantankerous George Orwell nailed it 60 years ago. We are closer than we might want to admit to living out his nightmare vision of a society rendered inert by propaganda.

    It’s not that a huge leap, really, from the “hand-crafted” burger to the “enhanced interrogation technique,” to the Clear Skies Initiative crafted to indulge polluters, not curb them, to the “housing rescue” plan that is really a life raft for dumb, greedy bankers. If only we could manage to pour as much craft into honoring facts as we put into obscuring them.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.