My pet hamburger turned 5 years old last week.
A co-worker asked if I was registering it for kindergarten.
Nope, but we did put a bow on it and take some photos.
On July 2, 2009, I bought a plain McDonald’s hamburger. And then I put it in my desk.
The patty shrank. The bun dried. But neither got moldy.
Five years later, it looks about the same as it did a few weeks after I bought it: like an air hockey puck with a dried-out bun. With a faint smell of beef.
I’d seen someone with an aged hamburger at a Farm Bureau event and always wanted to do my own experiment. And that’s how I have a pet hamburger. I’m not alone. A lot of others have done this too.
On one hand, it’s not as much fun as a dog. On the other hand, I don’t have to walk it or clean up after it either.
I posted a photo of James Buck photographing the burger. And people started chiming in on social media about how gross it was. (The burger. No one said anything about James.)
Former co-workers now spread out across the country said to tell the burger hello. It’s not often that food becomes a mascot, but this one is. It’s moved with me to at least four different desks in two different newsroom locations. And new hires get to meet the hamburger, shake their heads and wonder about one of the editors with whom they agreed to work.
I keep the hamburger because it’s cool. Who else can say they have a five-year-old hamburger? I also have a McDonald’s pie that also hasn’t molded after several years. I don’t know exactly how old it is, but Naudia Jawad didn’t want it one day and it went into the desk with the burger. It’s at least three years old.
So why did this burger, which is theoretically food, shrivel up rather than growing mold?
Let’s start with the bun. A McDonald’s bun has a lot of ingredients. You can make bread with flour, yeast and water. If you do that, it’ll mold within a couple days of baking. Any bread from Rachel’s Bread in Goshen will get moldy if left on the counter after a few days.
The number of ingredients in a good old McDonald’s hamburger bun tops 30. A bunch of them are those long words our grandmothers never encountered because they’re food preservatives that weren’t used decades ago.
Let’s just say that there are enough preservatives in this bun to keep it from doing much of anything other than fill someone up for a short period of time. There’s little nourishment, but the bread also won’t get much worse than it is when it’s served.
As for the burger, it’s a big flat piece of ground beef. McDonald’s says that it uses 100 percent ground beef with no fillers or extenders. But it does have salt, one of the world’s great preservatives. And there was probably just enough salt and little enough moisture in my desk that it turned into an air hockey puck before mold could grow.
Research by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt dug into whether hamburgers of any type would rot if given the same treatment. And for the most part, the culinary director for SeriousEats.com and a food science geek found that they won’t.
Had I put the burger in a plastic bag, it probably would have.
Mold needs moisture and the burger Lopez-Alt used in his experiments lost 93 percent of its moisture in the first three days. He concluded the small size of the burger allowed it to dehydrate quickly enough without growing mold.
He wrote, “Now don't get me wrong — I don't have a dog in this fight either way. I really couldn't care less whether or not the McDonald's burger rotted or didn't. I don't often eat their burgers, and will continue to not often eat their burgers. My problem is not with McDonald's. My problem is with bad science.”
I’ll accept that having an old hamburger that’s not moldy doesn’t prove much. So why should I keep it?
Other than being cool and a source for great conversations, I’ll keep the yet unnamed burger because it reminds me to think about what I put in my mouth.
It’s not that I never eat fast food, but I should think about why and when I do. Much of what I’d order in a drive-through isn’t that good for me. It just tastes good and then I’ll feel icky.
It’s not that I’m a vegetarian. I love meat. But am I eating too much of it for my own health or the planet’s? If everyone in this world ate as much meat as me, I suspect that beef prices would be even higher than they are.
Being thoughtful about what I eat heightens how much I enjoy it. Making good food, eating out at cool places and doing both with friends is powerful and doesn’t have to be fancy.
A plain McDonald’s hamburger that lives in my desk is a good reminder that how food is made matters.
Coincidentally, the burger has actually held up better than the ink on the receipt, which has faded so much I can’t tell how much the burger cost anymore.
The burger doesn’t have a name. It needs one. If you have a good idea, let me know by posting a comment on this story or contacting me.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Here’s Marshall King talking about his yet unnamed pet hamburger on 95.3 Michiana News Channel Monday morning.