A fed-up newspaper columnist sparks a new internet food debate

By Mike Pomranz
May 31, 2018
Photos by Westend61 and Scott Olson via Getty Images

Stop with the whole “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” thing. There’s a new food debate in town. And this one has potential legal ramifications. Two McDonald’s customers in Florida filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit in federal court alleging that the fast food giant has been ripping people off by only offering a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and forcing customers to pay for that cheese even if they wanted their burgers without it.

This lawsuit has launched a larger debate: Can a “hamburger” have cheese? Or, to put it another way, a “cheeseburger” must include cheese, but is a “cheeseburger” also a type of “hamburger”? Or does the term “hamburger” imply that the burger is served plain?

Clearly, this is a discussion for judges and professional linguists. And local news columnists. 

Leading the charge is Phil Kadner, a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. Kadner was very clear about where he stands on the issue. “People who want cheese on their hamburgers should be forced to say, ‘I want a cheeseburger,’” he argued. “I should not be required to say, ‘I want a hamburger, no cheese,’ or even answer a question such as, ‘Do you want cheese on your hamburger?’”

Kadner does have a point—albeit a very small one. For instance, a joke that is as old as time, or at least as old as the cheeseburger, or, as a colleague pointed out to me, at least as old as Aaron Carter’s 2000 album Aaron’s Party (Come Get It)… is ordering a “cheeseburger” with “no cheese.” 

In the other corner, aiding “the entire damn internet” with its argument was comedian Hayes Davenport, who posted an image of Kadner’s article on Twitter with the quip “save local news.” That tweet has racked up over 10,000 retweets and hundreds of comments… some of which peg Kadner as nothing more than a cranky old man.

Of course, all of this punditry and internet snark is nothing more than a distraction from actually going the linguistic route and just looking at a dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster, “hamburger” means “a sandwich consisting of a patty of hamburger in a split typically round bun.” We could parse that definition apart further—specifically once again engaging in that old sandwich debate—but nothing in that definitely would seemingly prevent a “hamburger” from having cheese, seeing as a “sandwich” can have cheese without being called a “cheesewich” (or whatever).

Meanwhile, the definition of “cheeseburger” is even more telling. Merriam-Webster suggests the word means “a hamburger topped with a slice of cheese.” Since the word “hamburger” is inclusive in the definition, its would seem to point to a “cheeseburger” as being a type of “hamburger” as nothing specifically states that adding cheese causes this “hamburger” to no longer be a “hamburger.”

So what have we learned here? Well, first, sadly, Kadner probably is a cranky old man. Second, the opinion of people on Twitter ranks considerably below the knowledge that can be obtained simply by going to the website of a legitimate dictionary. But alas, third, we still don’t know anything about whether McDonald’s is actually ripping people off. That’s up to the courts to decide. But hey, if I can get some of that $5 million, that’s a lot of cheddar… whether you put it on a hamburger or a cheeseburger or sandwich or a hot dog.