Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Burger Heaven

It's 6pm. Men's night out. The back patio of Barney’s Burgers has been commandeered. Serious business is about to commence. Animal sacrifices and other forms of bacchanalia are on the agenda. The Beach Boys are loudly and wistfully wishing all the women in the world could be California girls. The relative delicacy of children scarfing down McDonald's Chicken McNuggets versus a live chicken eaten by a python is being hotly debated.

"I want another lemonade!" demands a small voice. "Me, too." chime the two youngest boys of the group, pitch perfect, in stereophonic sound. Everything their big brother does is worth mimicking. They know this.  "Okay," says Daddy.

"Poor chicken!", says grandpa. Grandpa is not quite finished having gotten across his points made earlier in the debate, “Yanno, back in New Yawk your mommy never ate at McDonalds.”

Two boys simultaneously grab at the same fry from the communal plate overflowing with crisp potato wedges. They do so with the precision of synchronized swimmers and the ferocity of great white sharks.

“Yeah, so your Mommy's working tonight, huh? That’s too bad, but we’ll have lots to tell her tomorrow.” Grandpa now says this from a standing position. He has just tried to adjust the restaurant's patio heater.  Again. First he's too cold, then he's too hot.

"Cold. Hot. Cold. Hot. Cold. Hot." chants the wee-est one with a mouth full of potato.  "I'm going to get my jacket." says the eldest.  This is intoned gravely, with true conviction. The donning of his jacket apparently has been burdening his young mind.  "Me, too." is screeched with great enthusiasm from the wee one. "You don't need your jackets.” is the paternal response, but Daddy asserts this a little too weakly for the kids to buy it. They immediately spring out of their chairs and wrestle into their outerwear.

The middle boy is munching on onion rings, alert to all possibilities but doesn't participate in the banter, nor in any other of the table's orchestral maneuvers. He is focused on Grandpa. Grandpa is telling the table how the Sir Kensington  ketchup served here is also sold at a burger joint he frequents on 83rd and Broadway.

"Oh, I thought it was the restaurant's house brand. We usually have Heinz. Cheers, guys!"  Daddy says this amiably, not necessarily intending to contradict Grandpa, and gets ready to sip from his Sauvignon Blanc - "the one with that girl's picture on it?" is how he ordered it from the Russian waitress.  All the men at the table clink glasses.

After the toast, the waitress materializes out of the ether to try to re-adjust the patio heater for Grandpa a third time, and instantly dematerializes again. “I don’t think she knows how that heater works", suggests the eldest as Grandpa updates everyone, letting us know he is “perfectly fine now”.

Grandpa is visiting from NY. This is immediately evident even without the Brooklynese and the constant evocations of his beloved hometown. His careful coiffure, loudspeaker voice, and incessant need to control his environment is as telling as his casual but highly tailored outfit. "This place is so California!" says grandpa as he rises to adjust the patio heater once more for good measure. "It's like one of those southern Cali beach shacks!"

There are no patio heaters in Manhattan restaurants.

For good reason. I offer Grandpa up as Exhibit A.

"Hey, it's the Beach Boys!" Grandpa announces this to the restaurant as the Mamas and Papas sing about California dreaming. The kids join in the chorus. Daddy, who is obviously Grandpa’s son-in-law (there is no way such a laid-back California dude grew up with the well-intentioned but angst-ridden dis-ease of the Gucci-shoe wearing septuagenarian he was entertaining for dinner) starts to correct Grandpa but checks himself - because now Abba is on, and instead he tells his boys “This is Abba. They're from Sweden." "Really?" says the oldest with interest. "I want dessert!" shouts the wee one.  As more songs play, Grandpa and Daddy continue to engage in a battle of  "Name That Tune", much to the delight of the boys. "This is burger heaven!” beams out of the middle boy. Everyone at the table agrees.

Grandpa is still not quite comfortable enough with the ambient temperature, though; his black Ralph Lauren Polo tee and khaki shorts are no match for the chill of San Francisco's fog (even the little yellow polo guy in the Polo insignia seems to be shivering), so he throws his black leather jacket over his shoulders, and as Daddy fiddles with the patio heater settings for Grandpa, compliments his grandsons on how much they ate, assuring them that their daddy is going to drop him off at a market to buy strawberry shortcake for dessert.  Daddy appears to be surprised with Grandpa's pronouncement of this unscheduled stop.

I’ve been witnessing all this from the next table, picking at my fries. I should be home making dinner for my husband, but I'm here eating a late lunch. Actually, it's really breakfast. I've not eaten all day. Summer days used to be so meaningful, but no more. I suppose I'm depressed at the moment. It's not something I ever bother dwelling on. I feel what I feel when I feel it. I don't analyze it. A wave of nostalgia hits me as that New Yawk Grandpa talks about strawberry shortcake. I suddenly remember my Aunt Meyda buying it as a special summertime treat in East Harlem when I was a little girl. Her monthly S.S.I. check would arrive, I'd accompany her to the check cashing place on 105th Street and then she'd take us right to the colmado. It was an authentic thrill. The airy cream, the sweet thick strawberries that would stain your tongue and fingers, the spongy cake that held it all together. Seems like another lifetime ago. I'm afraid the boys’  grandpa is going to be disappointed. I've never seen the Saralee Strawberry Shortcake he no doubt is accustomed to buying at any colmado, Duane Reade drugstore or Gristedes supermarket in NYC sold here in organically-correct San Francisco. I doubt even Safeway with all its 'conventional' food stocks it.  He’ll have another adjustment to make.

 The boys really are ready to go. Their tiny pants are crawling with metaphorical ants. It's John Milton's Pandemonium all of a sudden -- if those boys don't get outside soon, Paradise will fall! Daddy is telling the wee one to finish his chocolate shake. "No strawberry shortcake for you later, Casey, until you do." Casey is explaining how he ate much more than it seemed he did. Somehow the laws of physics work differently in his little belly than they do anywhere else in the universe. The boys leave the table and start to explore the waiter's station.  The eldest is delivering a lecture to his siblings on the proper way to pour water into a glass. He is reaching for a pitcher of water to demonstrate the how of his what; suggesting to his brothers that they pretend to be empty glasses. Grandpa tells Daddy and every other customer at Barney's his chicken sandwich was great. "Wait til I tell grandma she's gawna be jealous!" he yells out at the boys. The boys all laugh conspiratorially.

Grandpa pays the check. The two older men finally get up. Everyone makes their way to the door. "Casey, zip up your sweater!" Casey is wearing a hoodie with Brooklyn stitched in big bold white letters across a field of Mets blue. He grabs daddy's hand & leans on him a little. His small blue-hooded head resting on daddy's jean-clad hip just for an instant. He's tired. It's been a heavenly day.

Those three generations of males were a sweet sight to see. Their daddy was beautifully patient; so was grandpa, really, despite his imitation of a weathervane. They brought me out of my funk by making me look outside of myself. I suppose that's what children force adults to do and it's a good thing they do. I went into that restaurant feeling pretty low and came out of it sky high. That family changed my perspective on things as I immersed myself into their little story, so I thought I'd share it & maybe uplift a few others people's spirits - people who find these kind of stories up-lifting. Though, of course, eavesdropping on others has become second nature to me. Writing really is a form of voyeurism, perhaps it's time one of us wrote about literature as the fetish it really is!

Whilst these lovely gentlemen were gorging on that most male rite of passage, bonding over the ground meaty beast flesh formed into rounds and slapped over fire, charred to perfection and then slid between a sliced sesame bun - honoring the universal practice of patriarchal origin- I sat solo at my little table in that renown San Francisco burger joint eating a salmon sandwich on French bread with goat cheese, avocado and arugula - a highly improbable combination of ingredients for any meat sandwich that required some pretty deft deconstruction before it was actually consumable - it is a sandwich special that the lovely Russian waitress pointed out was quite popular with female patrons.  Why is this? Why the dichotomy between men and women about the consumption of the almighty burger? When did it become the sole province of the so-called stronger sex? A man may never be able to boil an egg, or know how to work his coffeemaker, but give him an outdoor grill, a few slabs of ground beast & a spatula and he is suddenly Gordon Ramsay & Bobby Flay rolled up into one unappetizing package of chef hubris!

Even Ernest Hemingway, not the first person you'd necessarily think of when contemplating culinary prowess, has his own secret hamburger recipe. Although in fairness to Hemingway, his "A Moveable Feast" demonstrated he was quite the gourmand: “Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary... " "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” 

 He'd even have his favorite foods shipped to his Havana home—Finca Vigía, or “Lookout Farm,” a large house whose sprawling tropical gardens were filled with avocado, mango and almond trees. Courtesy of the Hemingway Collection of the Museum Ernest Hemingway of the Republic of Cuba, I offer Exhibit B: an April, 1957 order to Maison Glass, a gourmet emporium in New York City, requests that tins of smoked sturgeon, smoked trout pate', whole pheasant, cèpes, crab soup and lobster bisque along with dozens of jars of preserves such as rose petal jelly and  bar le duc be sent to Finca Vigía “by Air Express as you usually do.”

A picky eater with a refined palate, his recipe for hamburger reads more like steak tartare. Hemingway's hamburger recipe resurfaced only recently, one of 2,500 pieces of ephemera digitized in 2013 by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The typewritten page is a testament to the meticulousness with which Hemingway approached food. Titled “Papa's Favorite Wild West Hamburger” and covered in handwritten marginalia, it's a literary work in its own right. “Let the meat sit, quietly marinating,” he writes. “Now make four fat, juicy patties with your hands.”

(Evidence below that America's manliest, man's man writer of prose with a powerful punch, took no prisoners in his kitchen; although his burger with its 'middle pink' would be too well-done for this fish-eating feline. I like my burgers to moo as I bite into them):

Now the ground meat patty did not originate with America, of course, the ancient Egyptians and even Genghis Khan's Mongol "Golden Horde" ate them. The army needed food that could be carried on their mounts and eaten easily with one hand while they rode, so ground meat was the perfect choice. They would use scrapings of lamb or mutton formed into flat patties and softened by placing them under the saddles of their horses while riding into battle. When it was time to eat, the meat would be eaten raw, having literally been tenderized by their bodyweight, the saddle and the back of the horse. Ground meat was the food of the fierce and ferocious. Kublai Khan then took it to another level when his hordes invaded Russia one hundred years later in the middle of the 13th Century. The Russians adapted it and it became part of their cuisine calling it Steak Tartare - Tartars was their name for Khan's invaders.

By the 15 century, minced meat was seen as a delicacy and eventually made into sausage throughout all of Europe. German ships from the port of Hamburg, brought back steak tartare, calling it "tartare steak" because Germans are notoriously backward thinking (I jest, mostly... I'm married to a Dutch-German, and enjoy ribbing him at every opportunity because such opportunities rarely arise, so, dear reader, you must make allowances for me).

In the 18th century, Germany had the largest 'ports of call' in Europe, and her sailors from the German Hamburg-Amerika line ships were courted when they landed in New York's harbors by eating stands in the streets of New York City who began offering them steak cooked in the "Hamburg-style" to ensure their patronage; these stands were mostly run by German-speaking Jewish immigrants of the time. Hamburg steaks had by then been relegated to the fare of the lower working classes. Salted, hard, often stretched with soaked breadcrumbs and chopped onions these patties traveled well over the long voyages over the Atlantic Ocean, but immigrants now living in New York made theirs with fresh patties, much as we do today.

The original Boston Cooking School Cook Book, by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln (Mary Bailey), 1844 had a recipe for Broiled Meat Cakes and also Hamburgh Steak:

Broiled Meat Cakes - Chop lean, raw beef quite fine. Season with salt, pepper, and a little chopped onion, or onion juice. Make it into small flat cakes, and broil on a well-greased gridiron or on a hot fring pan. Serve very hot with butter or Maitre de' Hotel sauce.

Hamburgh Steak - Pound a slice of round steak enough to break the fibre. Fry two or three onions, minced fine, in butter until slightly browned. Spread the onions over the meat, fold the ends of the meat together, and pound again, to keep the onions in the middle. Broil two or three minutes. Spread with butter, salt, and pepper.

At the 1904 St. Louis World's fair, Hamburger Steak, Plain and Hamburger Steak with Onions were served in the Tyrolean Alps Restaurant.  There are many claimants to the first actual hamburger sandwich that is now associated with American cuisine, none of them can truly be substantiated. Some authorities give the nod to Oscar Weber Bilby in 1891 whose Oklahoma farmstead was said to have placed the patty between a sliced bun. Apparently Michael Wallis, travel writer and reporter for Oklahoma Today magazine, did an extensive search in 1995 for the true origins of the hamburger and determined that Oscar Weber Bilby himself was the creator of the hamburger as we know it. According to Wallis's 1995 article, Welcome To Hamburger Heaven, in an interview with Harold Bilby:

The story has been passed down through the generations like a family Bible. "Grandpa himself told me that it was in June of 1891 when he took up a chunk of iron and made himself a big ol' grill," explains Harold. "Then the next month on the Fourth of July he built a hickory wood fire underneath that grill, and when those coals were glowing hot, he took some ground Angus meat and fired up a big batch of hamburgers. When they were cooked all good and juicy, he put them on my Grandma Fanny's homemade yeast buns - the best buns in all the world, made from her own secret recipe. He served those burgers on buns to neighbors and friends under a grove of pecan trees  . . . They couldn't get enough, so Grandpa hosted another big feed. He did that every Fourth of July, and sometimes as many as 125 people showed up."

Simple math supports Harold Bilby's contention that if his Grandpa served burgers on Grandma Fanny's buns in 1891, then the Bilbys eclipsed the St. Louis World's Fair vendors by at least thirteen years. That would make Oklahoma the cradle of the hamburger. "There's not even the trace of a doubt in my mind," say Harold. "My grandpa invented the hamburger on a bun right here in what became Oklahoma, and if anybody wants to say different, then let them prove otherwise."

 We do know that by 1906, they were already so ubiquitous that American novelist, Upton Sinclair, told of the horrors of Chicago meat packing plants in his book, The Jungle, causing Main Street America to distrust chopped meat, and slowed its consumption for several years. Sinclair was surprised that the American public missed the main point of his impressionistic fiction and took it to be an indictment of unhygienic conditions of the meat packing industry.

I wonder if I should delve into the abortion that is the ubiquitous burger chain - McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, In-N-Out Burger.... Atrocities, all of them. I hesitate to do so yet one cannot discuss American hamburgers without mentioning McDonalds. The first McDonalds restaurant was run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California. In 1954, Ray Kroc visited the restaurant and was so impressed by their efficiency of their operation that he pitched his vision of creating McDonalds restaurants across the US. By 1958, McDonalds had sold 100 million hamburgers. Kroc once said of his four business goals: “If I had a brick for every time I’ve repeated the phrase Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value, I’d probably be able to bridge the Atlantic Ocean with them.”

There are now 36,258 McDonald’s restaurants in 119 countries, of which 29,544 are franchised
Some 350 McDonald’s restaurants have been closed down so far this year - mostly in the US and China. Still, 69 million customers are served every day. McDonalds was the first job I ever had, manning the cashier faithfully for 6 months as I did, super-sizing many a hungry customer who couldn't afford to have "fries with that" before super-sizing meals was ever a gleam in a greedy ad-executive's eye. I was 15. I was fired for being insubordinate and questioning the tactics of management, because I was appalled by the daily waste. Food that was not sold would be thrown in the dumpster, I knew so many people in East Harlem who could have used the free hot meal, but management preferred to serve it to the rats instead.

The last McDonalds I was in was in Kyoto. I didn't eat anything I just wanted to see the menu. They had an ebi filet-o-shrimp burger among other unique menu variations.  I went into a Starbuck's too. For the record, I never go into Starbucks here at home. Their drinks are swill, but I was thirsty. The line was beyond long. It took an eternity. I swear the Apollo missions to the moon were done in less time.  Every teenager in Kyoto was queued up for their java jolt.  I ordered some iced concoction.  It was so sweet I couldn't drink it. The Japanese Kawai culture is ridiculous with everything taken to the point of cultural diabetes. Cutesy to the max. Barf. Yet, their versions of our mass-produced American classics were far more carefully made, even if they weren't to my tastes.

So, how do I make my burger? 

Very simply.

I use American Wagyu beef from my favorite butchers in Bryan's Grocery, a small family-owned local market that has been in San Francisco since 1963. The American Wagyu Association promotes and upholds the standards for Wagyu beef in the U.S.A. Highly prized for their rich flavor, these cattle produce arguably the finest beef in the world. Wagyu cattle's genetic predisposition yields a beef that contains a higher percentage of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than typical beef. Making it extremely rich, flavorful, tender and healthy. The omega profile is similar to that of wild salmon.

Now if you have no access to Wagyu beef, I would recommend grinding your own in a food processor, but if you'd rather not, ask your supermarket butcher to do it for you. They will usually do it willingly, if you ask politely. Vogue Magazine's popular food writer Jeffrey Steingarten reports that most of New York City's best burgers are a blend of chuck and brisket, with some chefs adding hanger steak or short rib meat. His personal house blend is two parts chuck, two parts short rib, and one part brisket. But that is insanely fussy. Grind a choice chuck steak. This is the cut most of the top burger joints use. Chuck steaks come from the shoulder. You can get either boneless or bone in, it doesn't matter. But get chuck steaks not chuck roast. Chuck roast has too much sinew, and if you try to grind it yourself the leathery sinew will just clog the grinder. Look for steaks that have, to your eye, 20 to 30% fat. The esteemed cookbook author Michael Ruhlman says the cut is not as critical as the ratio of beef to fat. "Beef is beef and, unlike pork, beef tastes like beef no matter where it comes from on the animal. I know people will disagree. I believe the only critical ratio is the meat to fat, so I buy a nice fatty relatively inexpensive chuck steak, and that gives me a great burger every time. Short ribs will give you a great burger as well. So will sirloin and brisket if you've got the right amount of fat."

As for seasoning? Absolutely no salt in the meat or on it... salt sucks the moisture right out the meat and turns the patty into a hockey puck. Need salt? Sprinkle it on after you cook, or add a dash of sea salt to the grill pan. I like to sprinkle granulated garlic powder (NOT garlic salt) and freshly ground pepper on the meat, AFTER the burger is formed, not before... it is imperative that you handle the actual meat as little as possible. Despite outward appearances, ground meat is not dead. From the moment you lay your hands on it, it is changing dynamically, reacting to every knead, every sprinkle of salt, and every change in temperature. Working the meat unduly will cause proteins to cross-link with each other like tiny strips of velcro, making your finished burgers denser and tighter with every manhandling of the grind.

The perfect burger has two parts: the exterior and the interior. You want the exterior as dark as possible, but not black, and you want the interior juicy. The surface is significantly impacted by the cooking method. If the meat is cooked on a hot griddle, as it is in most diners, the surface is in direct contact with the heat and it cooks by conduction, browning evenly across the surface. If it is cooked on a grill, most of the meat cooks by radiant heat. The small amount of surface where the meat is in contact with the grates cooks by conduction. I use a cast iron grill, so it falls somewhere in-between. Many cooks recommend frequent flipping for more even cooking, but I personally like to allow a patty that is 3/4" thick and 5" long to sit for 5 minutes on a hot grill on one side, then flip it for another 3 minutes on the other, but I like a rare interior with a charred exterior. Keep in mind, too, that burgers will lose their diameter length and increase their thickness as they cook. This is why I prefer not to have a raw patty that is thicker than 3/4 of an inch to 1" thick, or smaller than 5" wide.

According to the USDA, ground meat must be cooked to at least 160°, or well done.  They consider anything else unsafe to eat. This typically takes from 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness or size of the hamburgers. I don't dispute this, but I have never gotten ill from my mooing burgers. This is killing a perfectly good piece of meat to me. One may as well just get a pair of scissors and cut the tongue off of a pair of leather sneakers and stick that inside a bun.

Here is a list of varying degrees (temperature) of doneness (in Fahrenheit) for burgers:

Rare: 120 to 125 (perfect)
Medium Rare: 130 to 135 (okay)
Medium Well: 150 to 155 (huh?)
Well Done: 160 to 165 (why bother?)

Now we must discuss the bun, the bun is an essential part of every burger. Buns come in all shapes, sizes, densities, and flavors. Make sure you've got the right one for the job at hand.

For smaller, thinner patties, like a fast food In-N-Out-style griddled burger or small Northern Jersey-style sliders, soft, sturdy, and slightly sweet Martin's Potato Rolls set the benchmark, although any soft, squishy, standard-issue supermarket bun will do.

A bigger, pub-style burger can overwhelm a soft bun with juices, soaking through and dissolving the base before the burger even hits your table. Toasting the bun can mitigate some of these effects, but for the most part, you're better off selecting a sturdier roll, or if you've got one nearby, a custom burger bun from an artisan bakery. Brioche has its proponents, but I prefer my buns to be a little less rich, so as not to compete with the flavor of the beef.

Do avoid anything with an overly chewy crumb or a tough crust, unless you want your burger to suffer from the dreaded backslide which will cause you to wear your burger as an unintended fashion accessory. I always toast the buns in the oven, and if adding cheese to the burger,  I slice the cheese by hand. I place the slices of cheese directly on the bun halves & broil them for 45 second until they are melted. Grating the cheese first is a nice way to ensure a quicker and more even melt.

Toppings vary. I find a nice sharp aged English, Irish cheddar, or Australian cheddar stands up best, adding a much needed bit of piquancy and bite to what is already a fatty sandwich. Caramelized onions are wonderful. They add sweetness and are easy to eat within the bun. Occasionally, I will use a favorite Kansas City-style barbecue sauce and add it to the onions after they have caramelized. I'd rather not add competing meat like bacon, I will occasionally add very thinly sliced avocado, and I always add a beautiful slice of tomato... ketchup is not necessary for me. When I do choose to use ketchup, it must be Heinz - it may have a few objectionable ingredients (like high fructose corn syrup), but it has the best balance of tomatoey sweetness to vinegary tartness for me.

Of course, burgers are also made from ahi tuna, mahi-mahi, scallops, turkey,  chicken, lamb, salmon... there is no limit to what you can stick inside a nice toasty bun. I love all and any variations. There is only one thing I am an absolute stickler for - it MUST be eaten with your hands.

There are two types of people in the world:

Those who eat burgers with their hands (properly), and those who don't (affected nincompoops). Here is where domestic bliss is tested at Casa Gomez.

The Battle of the Kobe Beef Burgers:

THIS is how I eat my burger (which tastes beyond, if I do say do myself). I say it requires no more than two hands and one napkin to eat the classic American dish

El Esposito, on the other hand, requires the careful implementation of fork and knife to conduct his culinary symphony, AND laughs at me for chomping into mine! WHO is right?!?!?

I'll let YOU decide.

But, honestly, add anything you like, eat it anyway you like.
After all, it's your ticket to Burger Heaven.