Memorial Day BBQ Case Study: Hamburger Hoarding

The bizarre case of a woman who used to buy 60 pounds of hamburger a day

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Hamburgers are the traditional food of the long Memorial Day weekend, which inaugurates the summer grilling season across the states. Being sort of a strange person, I wondered if the symbolic nature of hamburgers had ever found its way into the psychological case study literature. I mean, it seems there is no end to the list of phobias out there, couldn't someone be afraid of the lowly hamburger?

Well, no, but there's something even stranger reported in a 1966 issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: hamburger hoarding. The case study, written by William Bolman and Andy Katz, of the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, is a fine example of the dry high-Freudian language of yore. In fact, if there is one thing stranger than carrying around raw hamburger in your purse, it's the bizarre connections that these psychiatrists made between that practice and cannibalism among the Ojibwa tribe and Cree Eskimos.

"Although it is common to find unusual or bizarre symptoms of behavior in schizophrenic patients, to the best of our knowledge the symptom of hamburger hoarding has not been previously described," they begin. Indeed.

The patient was a 37-year-old white woman who worked as a secretary. She entered psychotherapy in 1952 after developing "rather diffuse phobias, somatic symptoms, and anxiety" after a car accident during which her sister sustained minor injuries. Eight years later, a new things started getting weird.

In 1960, a new symptom developed, the buying and hoarding of large quantities of raw hamburger. The precipitating event again involved the sister, and the onset of the symptom was quite interesting. The week before the sister was to depart on an airplane trip, the patient bought a cooked hot dog, removed it from the bun, and carried it around in her handbag. This was repeated once when the hot dog spoiled, and after this the patient switched to raw hamburger. When asked later she said the hot dog wasn't quite right, the hamburger somehow seemed better.

The therapists note that they "initially reacted to the hot dog symptom with our own fantasy, that it represented a penis, but this missed the mark as badly as the anxiety-hysteria diagnosis of earlier therapists."

The hamburger hoarding narrative continues, but first consider that during the time described, the patient was able to "attend graduate school, obtaining straight As, and to have pleasurable heterosexual relationship which included moderate intimacy."

Once it began, the buying and saving of hamburger was inexorable. For about two years, it remained at two to five pounds a day, and then steadily increased to huge quantities. This increase mainly had to do with the patient's extreme, if not total, inability to manage ambivalence. As the transference began to change from that of ineffectual, passive "talker," her buying of hamburger increased to massive proportions, by her estimate, 60 pounds a day."

The patient would take that hamburger and stuff it into the back of her large, black, hearse-like automobile, which happened to be a replica of her father's. "As she had trouble parting with hamburger, even when it became rotten, it soon became clear that she had converted her father's automobile into a hearse in which she carried his rotting body and to which she gave renewed life in the form of fresh hamburger," they concluded.

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