Mark Twain? Abbie Hoffman? Roy F. Nichols? George McKinnon? Aardvark Magazine? Graffito?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following has often been ascribed to the famous humorist Mark Twain and the 1960s-era political activist Abbie Hoffman:
Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.
Apologies for offensiveness. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this statement. It does not appear on the important Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2
The words were ascribed to Abbie Hoffman by a speaker at his funeral in 1989. The detailed citation is given further below.
The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in October 1965 in “The Daily Collegian”, a student newspaper at Pennsylvania State University. An article discussed the revivification of a student publication called “Bottom of the Birdcage” which took inspiration from another periodical. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3
Birdcage’s newly-adopted theme, borrowed from Aardvark magazine, is “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” Each issue will have something to offend each member of the family.
“Aardvark” magazine was a Chicago humor journal that started out at Roosevelt University. Based on the excerpt above, the saying probably appeared in that magazine before October 1965; however, QI has not examined issues of “Aardvark”. Also, it was conceivable that more than one humor magazine using the name “Aardvark” existed in the time period.
QI believes that the expression evolved over time, and interesting precursors appeared many years earlier.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1920 the journalist T. R. Ybarra who had returned from London to New York wrote a piece in “The New York Times” expressing unhappiness with the high prices charged at restaurants in the city. He wondered about the source of the steaks: 4
To one accustomed for months to meals of that sort, or to others proportionately reasonable, the first sight of New York food price lists is hair-raising. Why these steaks, ranging from 90 cents to $2? Are they all reverently removed from sacred cows?
In 1940 a sports article in the “Chicago Sunday Tribune” used the terms “sacred cow” and “hamburger” figuratively, but the meaning differed from the saying under analysis. Also, the meat was unlikely to be tasty: 5
It is almost generally conceded that the Cubs made a 100 per cent mess of their National league affairs this year. By the series of brilliant trades for which they have become so noted, by the nursing of sacred cows on which there isn’t enough healthy meat to make up a five cent hamburger, and by all around smugness, the Cubs have deteriorated to such an extent that a good portion of the National league seems to have gone away and left them.
In 1955 a conference was held on methods of financing higher education. Roy F. Nichols, Dean of the Graduate School at the University Pennsylvania, was the chairman of a session. He referenced the desirability of milk derived from sacred cows, and this was analogous to the saying under scrutiny: 6
At the close of the session the chairman made three brief comments. Creative activity thrives best in a little chaos. Sacred cows sometimes give good milk. Filet mignon costs more than hamburger.
In 1957 the singer and comedian Anna Russell appeared at Jordan Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. The reviewer George McKinnon wrote about her performance of musical parodies in “The Boston Globe”. The terms “sacred cow” and “hamburger” were used, but tastiness was not mentioned: 7
Anna Russell is a woman of Wagnerian proportions who affects a majestic dislike of music. She takes a malicious delight in swinging left and right without mercy and clobbers all forms of music—folk, popular and serious. When she has finished, a lot of musical sacred cows are ground into hamburger by her penetrating and biting satire.
In October 1965 in “The Daily Collegian” of Pennsylvania State University printed the expression as mentioned previously. This citation is also listed in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”: 8
Birdcage’s newly-adopted theme, borrowed from Aardvark magazine, is “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.”
In November 1965 “The Daily Collegian” printed the saying again: 9
Yes, the almost defunct Bottom of the Bird Cage was reborn again yesterday, true as ever to its policy that “sacred cows make the best hamburger.”
In 1967 the “Chicago Tribune” the humor column “Gag Bag” printed a remark about “sacred cows” and “hamburger”, but the desirability of the meat was not mentioned: 10
John Gillespie: “Today’s college students are making hamburger out of education’s sacred cows.”
In January 1968 a solid match appeared in “The Lowell Sun” of Lowell, Massachusetts. A TV commentator praised the performance of Lee Radziwell but predicted that other reviewers would be negative: 11
All the critics, of course, will pan her. It’s understandable. An old newspaper adage says “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” Lee Bouvier is Jackie Kennedy’s sister and she has to pay the penalty.
In November 1968 an article in “Time” magazine followed a class taught by the Robert Reisner at Manhattan’s “New School for Social Research” as participants reported on graffiti collected from lavatory walls: 12
Classes begin with students presenting their homework—arresting specimens of graffiti that they have collected during the week. Among recent, and printable, student finds: “Life is a hereditary disease,” found at the Princeton University student center; “Sacred cows make great hamburger,” from an East Side cafe.
In 1989 “The New York Times” published a remark spoken during a requiem for the activist Abbie Hoffman that linked the saying with the word “tastiest” to Hoffman: 13
But the Rabbi also quoted one of Mr. Hoffman’s favorite sayings: “Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
In conclusion, the earliest evidence pointed to “Aardvark” magazine in 1965, but QI hypothesizes that the phrase was circulating as an anonymous adage before its use in “Aardvark”. Precursors from previous decades suggested that the saying evolved over time. The linkage to Abbie Hoffman was weak because the first known published ascription to him occurred after he was dead. The ascription to Twain was unsupported.
Image Notes: Painting by Camille Pissarro titled “Girl Tending a Cow in Pasture” circa 1874; accessed via WikiArt.org. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Szescstopni, Gary, and Erica A. Zwick whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Victor Steinbok, Charles Doyle, and Fred R. Shapiro for valuable research. Thanks also to mailing list discussants Jim Parish and Robin Hamilton.)
Addendum: There seems to be an interesting match in the “College Board Review” journal circa 1964 or 1965, but QI has not yet verified this match. The excerpt mentioned “better hamburger”: 14
One mustn’t butcher old sacred cows, however, without at least offering a better hamburger. So I have a modest set of recommendations for both admissions officers and school counselors that may help halt the decline.
- Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched December 3, 2016) link ↩
- 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1965 October 19, The Daily Collegian (Pennsylvania State University student paper), Ad Hoc Resurrects ‘Bottom of Birdcage’, Page 4, Column 6, University Park, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive, ActivePaper Archive Full View) ↩
- 1920 March 28, The New York Times, London and New York Prices: A 35-Cent Steak Still Exists in the British Capital and Other Comparisons Are Odious by T. R. Ybarra, Quote Page XX7, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1940 September 29, Chicago Sunday Tribune, White Sox, Cubs Open 23d City Series Tuesday by Irving Vaughan, Quote Page B5, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1955 September, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Special Issue: Higher Education under Stress, Volume 301, Operating Costs and University Management: Methods to Effect Economies by Richard M. Paget, Discussion Section, Start Page 184, Quote Page 195, Column 2, Published by Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1957 November 20, Daily Boston Globe, Wagner Gest Clobbered: Anna Russell vs. Music by George McKinnon, Quote Page 21, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 46, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1965 November 13, The Daily Collegian, (Pennsylvania State University student paper), A Lesson in Humor, Quote Page 2, Column 1, University Park, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive, ActivePaper Archive Full View) ↩
- 1967 January 29, Chicago Tribune, Section: Chicago Tribune Magazine, Larry Wolters’s Gag Bag, Quote Page G18, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1968 January 25, The Lowell Sun, Headliners, Page 12, Column 1, Lowell, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1968 November 15, Time, Curriculum: Handwriting on the Wall, Time, Inc. (Online Archive at time.com; accessed December 11, 2016) ↩
- 1989 April 20, New York Times, Mourning, and Celebrating, a Radical, Quote Page A16, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- College Board Review, Circa 1964 or 1965, Issues 51 or 52, Quote Page 24, College Entrance Examination Board, New York. (Google Books Snippet View; this data may be inaccurate and must be verified in hard copy) ↩