I will be a different person when I go to sleep tonight than when I woke up this morning. Today I had my first Whopper.
It happened, like so many things in this country, because of a lawsuit. Anything can occur when America decides to eat: a burrito turns out not to be a sandwich, a Subway footlong comes up short, an errant piece of prosciutto brings you to your knees. Now it’s this: A judge last week determined that Burger King must go to court over whether the Whopper appears misleadingly large in menu photos. The fast-food chain faces a class action lawsuit alleging the photos overstate the size of the signature burger by about 35 percent.
The plaintiffs, who have apparently spent little time on dating apps, were shocked — shocked — at the perceived inflation. Wild that a product might look better in a professionally shot promotional photo than when prepared by an underpaid shift worker trying to keep up with drive-through traffic. You know who wasn’t surprised at all? Food stylists. There is a whole profession that exists for the purpose of zhuzhing food to maximum beauty so dishes can have their picture taken. The Whopper in the menu photos would be the Whopper at its best — prepared, prodded, coddled, teased, and lighted to enhance its best angles. In short, treated like any other model.
Also not surprised: restaurant critics. The dishes I eat on review dinners don’t always look as delectable as the ones in the photos I assign after the fact. Maybe it’s deceptive on the part of the restaurant. Mostly it’s reality. It’s the difference made by time and attention. As anyone who has ever posted a pic of dinner knows, taking a minute to fix the lighting, wipe the plate, and fluff the lettuce can enhance the photogenic outcome.
But I was curious. How off were these images? If I went to Burger King and ordered a Whopper, would it measure up? I simply had no idea. I had gone Whopper-less my entire life. It’s as simple as this: My family is a McDonald’s family, because McDonald’s fries are in the pantheon of perfect foods. They are the benchmark, what even the fanciest chef is dreaming of when frying pommes frites.
McDonald’s burgers, however, I have always found egregiously awful, like something you’d pry off the bottom of your shoe after trudging all over the city on a hot summer day. I didn’t have high hopes for the Whopper, but I was going to try. For research.
I pulled up to the takeout window behind a pickup truck driven by a beefy guy in a white undershirt. The woman who took my order was gloriously crabby, with multihued, rhinestoned press-on nails. I felt like I might be in a cliched movie scene about driving through a fast-food window, maybe one written by AI because all the clever people are on strike. But when I took a bite, the script went out the window.
Whoppers are pretty good. This is not a news flash for the American majority, but it was for me.
My Whopper tasted like actual food. Like an actual burger. Like the meat kissed a grill on its way to me. The bun was surprisingly sweet, almost like a Hawaiian roll, but in a nice way. The tomato slices were ripe; the lettuce was crisp. There was so very much mayo slathered on the bun, more than I wanted. Perhaps my Whopper crafter was a generous soul who believes that more is more when it comes to creamy sandwich condiments. I can respect that. Still, the overload made the Whopper too rich for my blood. I need the impertinent interruption of pickles, ketchup, anything acidic. There cannot be too many pickles on my burger, ever. If I made Whoppers, I would put excessive pickle slices on each one, until I got fired for blowing the pickle budget.
Now on to the more relevant Whopper attributes. This thing was hefty. The descriptive copy states that it includes a quarter-pound of beef. I was happily absolved from having to weigh the thing by a note beneath: “Weight based on pre-cooked patty.” But I’ve made and grilled my share of patties, and a quarter-pound seemed more than plausible.
It looked hefty too. Compared with Burger King’s Whopper photos, it didn’t come up particularly short on beef. Maybe on tomatoes and onions. The Whopper in the photo looked pretty much like my Whopper, pulled up to its full height and neatened. This was the Whopper’s first day of school photo, taken before the calamities of lunch and recess. But it wasn’t a different Whopper.
Maybe a memo went out from corporate after the suit was filed, directing all Burger King branches to change their Whopper-making approach.
According to the lawsuit, “Burger King began to materially overstate the size of its burgers in its advertisements in September 2017.” It shows pre- and post-2017 Whopper photos, as well as an image from a 2020 Insider ranking of every Burger King burger. (It called the Whopper perfect and ranked it No. 1.)
Insider’s candid Whopper photo indeed looks pretty gnarly, compared with both professional headshots, but also with the Whopper I just ate. Regarding the older and newer company photos, one thing seems clear: Burger King hired a better food stylist and photographer. Angles, lighting, and construction are optimized, with more texture and saturation. The older Whopper looks like a pale nerd with its neat, linear layers, the newer one more rugged, unbuttoned, casual. Background shades of pumpkin and almond make the image pop. At the very least, the lawsuit should silhouette the Whopper in the newer photo, as it is on the menu, to level the playing ground.
The plaintiffs all say they expected a bigger burger than the one they received and were financially damaged as a result. They would have gone elsewhere, they say. Welcome to dining out, a game of chance in which participants often don’t receive what the menu led them to expect, but also don’t sue over it.
If I were on this jury — the chances of which are diminishing by the moment — would my sympathies lie with Big Burger or the brave consumer advocates trying to stick it to the man?
Perhaps with the Whopper itself, objectified and reduced to the merits of its appearance, when what really matters is its substance. The Whopper tastes better than I expected. And it is very filling, seeming to expand once solidly lodged in my gut. However the Whopper looks, I can say this much for sure: I cannot imagine wanting it to be a single bite bigger.
Now excuse me. I have to go lie down.