The Big Mac, from Signature Dishes that Matter. Illustration Adriano Rampazzo

Smart things to say about Signature Dishes: The Big Mac

It took a while to get the name right - The Aristocrat and Blue Ribbon Burger were early versions - but now it's so popular The Economist uses it to make exchange rate theory understandable

Not every meal in Signature Dishes that Matter is the creation of some big-name chef, and comes served on a silver platter. The maker of the world’s best-known hamburger wasn’t even a pro in the kitchen, but his sense of the American market was highly attuned.

Here’s how we describe restaurant owner Jim Delligatti’s creation of the Big Mac, in our new book. “Almost thirty years after McDonald’s revolutionized the burger business, the owner of several McDonald’s franchises located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made the American dream food even bigger,” explains the text in our book. “In searching for a burger that would boost profits and draw new customers after McDonald’s repeatedly turned down his requests for a double-patty burger, Delligatti sandwiched two beef patties between not two but three sesame seed buns, adding cheese, lettuce, pickles, onions, and a ‘special sauce’.”

Its creation wasn’t quite as straightforward as that simple list suggests. Delligatti had to work hard in order to get permission from McDonald’s to introduce an off-menu item with curious ingredients into one of his Pennsylvania restaurants. In 2007 the burger’s special sauce, long believed to be Thousand Island dressing, was revealed to be a combination of mayonnaise, sweet relish, yellow mustard, cider vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. Even the name didn’t come immediately. The sandwich was called The Aristocrat and The Blue Ribbon Burger, before the Big Mac won out.


Big Mac ad

Delligatti knew that his dish was more an innovation than a truly new invention (other, rival restaurants had offered double-pattie burgers prior to the Big Mac); as he told the Los Angeles Times, “This wasn’t like discovering the light bulb. The light bulb was already there. All I did was screw in the socket.”

And boy, did that bulb burn bright. The Big Mac was offered nationwide in 1968, and “was cemented in the national consciousness following an advertising campaign whose jingle quickly listed the burger components,” explains our book.

“By 1980, the Economist had created the Big Mac index, which compares the valuation of global currencies based on the price of a Big Mac in each country - a standard that came to be known as burgernomics. As concerns around health and ingredient quality began to slow McDonald’s domination in the 2000s, the race to create the most decadent, ethically sourced burger was sweeping restaurants, such as Daniel Boulud’s DB Burger and the Black Label burger at New York’s Minetta Tavern.”


Signature Dishes that Matter
Signature Dishes that Matter

Though the creation of those dishes are, of course, another story. To fully understand how this burger fits into a gastronomic history of the world, order a copy of Signature Dishes that Matter here.