• Posted by Elizabeth Kaye on July 18th, 2008, 1:06 PM
    Illustration by Peggy Kaye

    Illustration by Peggy Kaye

    I’m sitting here trying to think about meat, but what’s coming to mind is a Marianne Moore verse about poetry. “I too dislike it,” she wrote.

    Well, I dislike meat, at least in theory. Or, to put it another way, I’ve never been in love with the prospect of chowing down on a leg of lamb or a rack of ribs or anything else that once, obviously, had a mother.

    My ideal is to be a purist—stubbornly ignoring the fact that God gave me two incisors—a clear-eyed, dewy-skinned vegetable eater who dismisses prime, exquisitely marbled rib eye as “cow-daver.”

    That is exactly what I’d be—were it not for the hamburger.

    Hamburger is more than a food. It is a quest, a mission, in the sense that anyone who likes hamburger even a little is apt to find themselves seeking out the “perfect” one.

    My own extensive quest began with the realization that there’s something even more luscious than a grilled Swiss cheese sandwich on rye bread with a little French’s mustard on the side, and picked up considerable energy when I learned that a buttery grilled cheese sandwich becomes nirvana itself when you stick some grilled onions and a meat patty inside it.

    Surely I had eaten hamburgers before my late teens, but none, I must say, are memorable. What I do remember is the story my mother told about going to the Hot Shoppe after her senior prom, ordering a burger and finding, when she set it down, that the steam of the bun had softened the glue on her false fingernails which were now lined up in the bun, like miniature sentinels with nothing to guard.

    Burgers to remember entered my life during the long ago summer I spent in a boarding school on the outskirts of Boston, a venture memorable for three discoveries, only one of which is actually relevant:
    1)    to sneak rum into your dorm room, decant it into a Helena Rubenstein spray deodorant atomizer;
    2)    drinking rum from a deodorant atomizer numbs your lips and makes them pucker;
    3)    for the best meal in town, go to Friendly’s.

    Friendly’s is an East Coast restaurant chain whose version of the burger was simplicity manifested: a patty served on buttered white toast divided into two austere triangles. It was nothing much to look at: very flat, very brown. But the crunch of the toast managed to offset the burger’s lascivious density and to meld with it. Once I ate a Friendly’s burger I didn’t want to eat anything else ever again.

    My first burger had proved to be the Perfect Burger, or at least my First Perfect Burger, for my tastes would prove alarmingly fickle. Soon, driving the Old Post Road between Boston and New York, my friends and I saw something curious: a yellow arch beneath a sign that read, Over A Billion Sold. Until that moment, we had never heard of McDonald’s, or of the McDonald brothers who’d opened a hamburger stand in Des Plaines Illinois in 1955 and, six years later, sold it to the infinitely foresighted Ray Kroc for $2.7 million, a sum so staggering at the time that the brothers must have figured they’d gotten away with highway robbery.

    How to describe the bliss of my first McDonald’s cheeseburger? Words fail. Suffice it to say, you’ve never had a bun until you’ve had a steamed bun, as my mother had discovered, and as White Castle aficionados have known since the 1920s.

    I soon learned that the trick to appreciating McDonald’s is to eat your burger in circular bites: since all the good stuff is in the center, each successive bite is tastier, leading to a crescendo of bites that is positively addictive.  The outer, pedestrian bites are simply cheese, bun, and whatever that grayish brown stuff is that passes for meat. But then come the meat, cheese, bun, and ketchup bites, which yield to the bites with lots of ketchup and mustard, which lead to the highly anticipated center bites with their swooshes of mustard, ketchup, pickles, and onion. To eat this burger is to understand that Ray Kroc became a billionaire because he put his faith in the age-old concept that the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.

    Later, I would become obsessed with other burgers: the San Francisco Burger at the Marie Callendar’s restaurant chain that featured a juicy patty on grilled sourdough bread, augmented with tomato, cheese, and grilled onions. Eating it produced a big, sloppy, melting mess and one of those better-than-sex experiences.

    Then there were the thick, pink-centered char-grilled burgers served up on English muffins at the Elephant & Castle in Greenwich Village, the only restaurant I willingly ate in when visiting New York for half a dozen years.

    But the burger that held my interest the longest and best was the Everything On It at the Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles, where a four- or eight-ounce patty was layered with shredded lettuce, pickles, tomato, and cheese and that pink sauce that I have never seen the point of.

    The Hamlet came into existence in 1950, in an era when Americans had fallen in love first with themselves, and second with their cars. In the post-war 40s and 50s cars, as they used to say, were “all the rage.”  Cruising in a T-bird was emblematic of the nation’s new sense of freedom and possibility. Inevitably, drive-in theaters became the destination of amorous couples, and the drive-through restaurant became integral to the culture. The compact, casual, easy-to-serve burger dominated the drive-through menu. Now you could eat a burger in the comfort of your car, delivered by smiling, uniformed carhops, or by pretty young women on roller skates.

    The first drive-through seems to have been the In-N-Out Burger, founded in 1948 by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park, near L.A. The Snyders cleverly upped the modernity ante by installing a two-way speaker box through which customers could place their orders. In-N-Out burgers were all about freshness and quality and consisted of big, grilled buns, a sizzling piece of chopped beef, a thick ripe tomato slice, and a crisp piece of lettuce.

    In 1951, Jack in the Box made its first appearance, serving burgers to San Diego drivers for 18 cents apiece. Three years later, the first Burger King opened in Miami as a burger, milkshake, and soda joint.  Each of these establishments produced burgers with a particular taste, and particular merits, but none had the succulence of burgers at the Hamlet. So hooked was I on the Hamlet’s burgers, that when, as a young woman trying to make a living as a writer, confronted with insufficient funds to keep a roof over my head, and, still more pressingly, keep myself in Hamlet burgers, I did the sensible thing and became a waitress at the Hamlet.

    This, in fact, was something of a coup, since in those days the Hamlet hired only African-American women. I was the token white hire and so thrilled by the fact that I would be granted one free hamburger a day that I didn’t mind sticking my hair in a net, or signing the customer’s receipts with a perky, “Thanks! Come back! Your waitress, Liz!”  Nor did I mind the starched white apron we were consigned to wear over black skirts and tops, that had to be tied in a giant bow that made my rear end look like a wedding present.

    I loved working at the Hamlet. I loved learning the menu by heart: number 9 was the Everything on It; number 11 was the ever popular Bacon Cheeseburger. I loved calling out, “Two 11’s Chef!” I loved serving the burgers and seeing how happy they made the customers.
    Most of all, I loved serving the Planked Hamburger, which arrived with much portent on a wooden board divided into three sections: one for a baked potato, one for a thick slice of garlic bread, and the big one that held the grilled chopped hamburger steak, smothered in grilled onions. Though I did not know it then, this was the way burgers were initially presented when they found their way into finer American restaurants.

    ***********

    My treat of choice had originated some thousand years ago, from hunks of raw beef that Tatar warriors stuck beneath their saddles when riding off to battle. As they rode, the meat became tenderized and separated into bits. The resultant delicacy was eaten raw.

    By the 14th century the Tatar’s meal had made its way onto the pine dining tables of rural Russia. There it would be prepared by women who disdained the barbaric custom of eating it raw. Raw meat would, in fact, be déclassé until it surfaced in the 20th century as the divine tableside preparation of beaming maitre d’s, steak tartare, in which the raw beef is enhanced with raw egg, chopped onion, capers, salt, and pepper.

    Cooked chopped meat would pass from Russia to Germany and turn up in the United States in the 1880s during a wave of German immigration. What happened once hamburger arrived on our shores depends on who is doing the telling. The most credible version, fittingly enough, is the one told in Wisconsin, the state that boasts a Hamburger Hall of Fame and an annual burger fest that produced a 5,520 pound monstrosity that remains the largest burger on record. Apparently, the hamburger was happened upon in 1885, in the Wisconsin town of Seymour, where a local kid, 15-year-old Charlie Nagreen, had a flash of good old American ingenuity and flattened out the fried meatballs he was failing to sell at the Outagamie County fair because their roundness militated against their being eaten by the well-mannered folks strolling the fairgrounds.

    By 1911 hamburgers were favored as picnic or beach food, and hamburger stands were springing up at resorts. But anti-German sentiment during the First World War put a damper on the hamburger’s popularity, to such an extent that the sales of hamburger sandwiches took a seemingly terminal dive, and plated chopped meat was renamed “Salisbury steaks” in a bid to endow it with Anglican provenance.

    The hamburger would be resurrected in 1921, thanks to a short-order cook and an insurance executive in Wichita, Kansas who took the risk of opening a burger joint that they named White Castle. Making 18 steam-fried burgers from each pound of fresh ground beef, and cooking the meat on a bed of chopped onions, they established America’s most enduring hamburger chain.

    In retrospect it seems inevitable that culinary atrocities would abound once the can-do society got hold of a form of beef that can be subjected to nearly any treatment. Among these atrocities are dishes like the Maui Waui, that features a patty topped with grilled Canadian bacon and pineapple and smothered in teriyaki glaze. The Maui Waui is one of those you-don’t-really-want-a-burger-burgers, though what you do want, if you order one, is beyond me to say.

    Also inevitable was that the rise of the burger would give rise, in turn, to the kind of kitsch associated with such Midwest Americana as lime Jell-o molds and the marshmallow and canned fruit delight, ambrosia.  Consider the National Burger Festival in Akron, Ohio, the website of which comes complete with a countdown in days, hours, and minutes and the robust theme song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

    But the humble burger inspires High Kitsch too, and never more brilliantly than in 2001 when the celebrated chef Daniel Boulud came up with a $29 burger stuffed with foie gras and short ribs for his DB Bistro Moderne in New York’s Times Square.

    It is said that Boulud intended his burger to be a little foodie joke, but in New York City anything so grossly excessive was bound to attract a devoted following and it soon became the signature dish at Boulud’s exceptional restaurant.

    Once, in the hamburger realm, the phrase “can you top this” meant would you please stick a slice of cheese on my burger. But in bigger-is-better post-millennium New York it took on quite another meaning when the Old Homestead Steakhouse, taking a cue from Boulud’s unexpected success, put a $41 price tag on a 20-ounce Kobe beef burger. Boulud, no longer kidding, then produced a $150 burger that features three layers of shaved Périgord truffles. He calls it the DB Royale; I call it the Enough Already.

    It’s silly to waste truffles on a burger. Save them for something listless, like linguine. Keep burgers simple, and thus honor their inherent greatness. To prove I walk the talk, let me share my own favorite burger treatment:

    Buy fatty meat, like the 22% fat Nancy Silverton blend I get at L.A.’s Farmer’s Market. Roast some garlic, rub four roasted cloves into each pound of meat, add kosher salt, and smoked black pepper. Heat a pan on high for four minutes. Toss some kosher salt into the pan. While the pan heats, shape your patties into ovals, an inch and a half high. Put them in the heated pan. Cook three minutes on high heat, shake some Worcestershire sauce into the pan, shake the meat so it picks it up the sauce, then turn the meat and cook for three more minutes.

    This is my Simplicity Burger, the destination to which my quest was tending all along. It’s the burger I’d recommend to food-conscious folks who’d just as soon spend $150 dollars on something that lasts longer than a meal.

    Whatever style of burger you prefer, there’s no escaping the fact that the hamburger is the ultimate equalizer, an entity that is, to our collective culinary life, what death is to existence. It isn’t a mass impulse for slumming, after all, that explains the Escalades and Maseratis lined up outside the nation’s In-N-Out Burgers, anymore than it’s an accident that McDonald’s is now among the largest corporate landowners in Russia where, hundreds of years ago, chopped beef first met with fire.

    Elizabeth Kaye is a writer and occasional private chef who lives in Los Angeles. Peggy Kaye, her sister, is an educator, author, and artist who lives in New York.

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