I am a simple guy with simple tastes. Yes, a tender, juicy steak is something I appreciate, along with a good quality glass of scotch. However, there is nothing in the world wrong with a good hamburger. Heck, even a mediocre hamburger will usually satisfy my palate.
When you think about it, the humble hamburger is the ultimate in user-friendly food. It has no bones to cut around and leaves no inedible husk or seeds. When you finish, all that is left is a plate or a wrapper. Is there a better mealtime solution?
I am not even going to try to answer the question “where did the hamburger originate” as there are countless claims and very little hard evidence. The consensus is that it happened some time between 1885 and 1904, either in Hamburg, Germany or in the U.S. A version that favors the U.S. story says that something called a Hamburg steak was popular in that time period, and consisted of ground beef mixed with egg and some spices. How hard could it have been to figure out that putting it between two slices of a bun would change the world?
What kind do I prefer? Wow – how many kinds are there? There are the little teeny White Castles with their steamed buns and soft, savory onions. A little dab of mustard added makes them delightful. White Castle, by the way, dates to 1916 and has a pretty good claim on being the first volume purveyor of the things. On the other extreme are the big, thick, juicy “pub burgers” offered in so many restaurants, and toppable with almost anything you can imagine. I am a fan of these too, but I keep to the simpler end of the toppings choices with things like lettuce, tomato and pickle. And, of course, bacon makes everything better.
Those thick pub-style burgers bring up a choice about done-ness. For as long as I can remember, I have had a marked preference for red meat on the less-done end of the scale (as opposed to the gray, dry and crunchy end). It was a bad day when the news got out that undercooked hamburger could make me ill. But whenever a burger comes to me with a minimalistic interpretation of “medium”, I never complain. I just pretend that it’s 1973 and enjoy the juicy tenderness that seems like such a forbidden pleasure as the red juices puddle around the french fries that almost always accompany my sandwich of choice.
All of the fast (or fast-ish) food places have their own interpretation. There is Wendy’s, Culver’s, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr, and a host of others. Each has something to recommend it. Variety is the spice of life, right? And who says you don’t get variety by getting a hamburger multiple times a week so long as you are not stopping at the same drive-through? Even the Golden Arches does a burger in a way that can have its appeal. Have you ever tried one plain – with no cheese and no condiments or toppings? There is actually an appealing flavor to the a McNaked (my term, not theirs), one that is hard to duplicate elsewhere. And the benefit is that you get some of their fries, besides.
Seeing that my first job was in a Burger King, you would think that I would have some sentimental attachment to the Whopper – but this is not true. BK is one of those places I never think about unless I drive past one at the right time. But there is a little hole-in-the-wall called Powers Hamburgers in my home town of Fort Wayne that makes you think it is still 1938 whenever you go inside. It is a better White Castle that begins with a little burger ball that is splatted and smashed on the griddle, then pelted with a handful of stringy onions and covered with both halves of the bun, which steams away until the little thing is ready. And my adopted home city of Indianapolis boasts an ancient inner-city bar that boasts of a mighty good old-school double cheeseburger. Who can’t love a bar called The Working Man’s Friend? Grungy old taverns have served me some really great burgers through the years.
At home I like to follow what some would call Steak n Shake style. Or Smashburger style, if you must. Very thin patties seared in a hot iron skillet, served on a buttered and toasted bun. Mmmmm, I am getting hungry just thinking about one. Burgers out on the charcoal are OK, but those little skillet patties are far better in my view.
About the only kind I cannot abide are those that share a shape, a texture, a level of moisture with a hockey puck. These are the kind that all-too-often get served at someone’s backyard cookout. These are the people who cannot handle undercooked meat, yet insist on putting a patty in the shape of a baseball on the grille surface. By the time the center is done the outside reminds you of the brickquettes some of us still use in our grilles. No amount of ketchup will save such a burger, and not even a burger fan like me will finish it. Fortunately, these are rare. OK, rare in the sense of “I don’t get them very often”. Because if they were rare in the “how do you want it cooked” sense, these would move over into my must-have column.
Toppings/condiments make for more variety, and it is odd how I order different condiments in different places. I am usually a ketchup guy, but not at McDonalds. Did you know that they use a proprietary ketchup recipe that is extra sweet? I am also all-in for pickles. But not at Wendys, which a few years ago jumped on the fad of using sweet-ish bread and butter pickles instead of good, old school dill chips. Neither mustard nor onions is my go-to – unless I am at White Castle (or my old local Powers), in which case they are required.
I’ll go with lettuce and tomato if I feel in need of the cold crunch of fresh vegetables but will almost never do mayo. “Special sauce” can work if I feel in the mood to go with the flow and let the burger place do its thing instead of deciding how I want the burger constructed. Cheese is another of those things that depends on my mood. It is funny how a slice of melted cheese can transform a burger.
The only problem with writing something like this is that there is not a single hamburger within a half mile of my writing location. Which is a terrible thing, because I now have visions of glistening burgers dancing through my brain. The trouble is, I can’t decide what kind would hit the spot right now.
Feature photo – Photo of hamburger – free stock photo via pexels.com
Photo of White Castle hamburgers from the Flikr page of Gene Hon under CC-BY-NC 2.0 license (photo reduced in size)
Photo of Powers Hamburgers, S. Harrison Street, Fort Wayne, Indiana via Wikimedia Commons
Vintage advertising material from the Miller Brewing Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – a State where beef, cheese and beer all come together.