By David Minsky
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In the food of American folklore, the hamburger has gotten short shrift; it's overshadowed by the ever-present hot dog. While the wiener has come to represent our nation as surely as baseball and apple pie, the burger stands for nothing more than greasy spoons. The exclamation "Hot dog!" has positive connotations, but the only time "hamburger" is used in daily speech is when one ruffian wants to pummel another into ground beef, as in "I'll turn you into hamburger meat." And remember the McDonald's Hamburglar? How many of us still subconsciously associate eating fast-food burgers with criminal activity? Nathan's never had to pair a frankfurter with a thief in order to sell more of them.
The hot dog may have retained a more pristine image over the decades, but in today's restaurants the hamburger dominates. You'll find hot dogs at a limited number of eateries, usually at a delicatessen or on a kid's menu. But burgers (it's more fashionable to shorten it) have made it out of the backyard barbecue grill and into the bistros. No longer are they simply an option in Cantonese restaurants for folks who thought Chinese food was too exotic. And though still a staple at drive-thrus and drive-ins, burgers are hardly the property of only American fast-food joints any longer.
Not that they ever should have been. According to local cookbook author Steven Raichlen, who published The Barbecue! Bible, Delmonico's, an upscale steak house, served the first American hamburger in 1834, albeit without a bun, and for what was then considered a terrific expense (a dime). He's vague about when the roll was introduced -- "somewhere along the line" -- but it probably appeared before the burger was popularized by the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, where The New Food Lover's Companion says the burger first appeared.
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Nor is the burger strictly an American phenomenon. The hamburger was invented, appropriately enough, in Hamburg, Germany, by way of Russia -- German sailors brought the idea of steak tartare back to their home port and one-upped the Russkies -- who adored the raw, chopped meat -- by cooking it. German immigrants then acquainted North Americans with the hamburger, which was immediately adopted. Now, claims Jeffrey Tennyson, author of Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger, Americans alone account for the consumption of nearly 40 billion burgers a year. Other countries, like Greece, make their own versions of ground meat patties, and Raichlen includes recipes for Bulgarian, Bosnian, and Pakistani "burgers" in his tome.
While availability accounts for some of the hamburger's appeal, ease and convenience seal it. The self-contained burger is a quick, multicourse meal that appears to satisfy many nutritional requirements at once: meat, starch, dairy, and vegetable (a.k.a. lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion). In her book The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser claims we like the burger because both the meat and bun are circular, and "circles are symbols of completeness and self-sufficiency.... [T]he roundness is not only self-sufficient but also old-fashioned, plump, and comforting." She also uses psychobabble symbolism to explain why burgers can jump from fast food to fancy food. Burgers are held in the hand, making them quick to eat and difficult to share, both characteristics of which signal informality. At the same time, the round shape mimics traditional European dining plates, and "the superimposed and separate layers of food... make sophisticated references to parts of the sequential model for a formal meal."
Hmm. Cut through all this gobbledygook and what you have is (a) a discounting of White Castle's square-burger success, and (b) the fact the burger satisfies many different people for a few similar reasons. But collective consciousness isn't what inspired Jimmy Buffett to call a "cheeseburger in paradise... heaven on earth with an onion slice." He's more concerned with how he likes it as opposed to why, and diners agree. In fact most of us disagree when it comes to analyzing what makes a burger good.
For some of us, the quality of the meat is the most important aspect in burger appreciation. But that doesn't necessarily mean the beef should be the most expensive you can buy -- say, lean sirloin. In fact, in Kitchen Science, Howard Hillman notes that ground chuck will shape up best. See, chuck steak has more fat -- and therefore more flavor -- than sirloin; marbling, a kinder term for fat, keeps the meat moist and stops it from shrinking into a doll-size play burger as it cooks. And while sirloin steak is initially more succulent than chuck, grinding renders all steaks equal in the eyes of the grill cook.
However, if you like to fly in the face of convention, indulge your whim at Morton's of Chicago (various locations in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties). The 20-year-old steak house chain presents a USDA prime, 13-ounce ground sirloin burger for $8.95 at lunch only. Almost monstrously plump, the burger ranks among the best I've had, offering a beautifully bright red interior with a firm texture. Keeping in mind that the a la carte double-cut filet mignon is only one ounce heavier but much pricier and that the burger is topped with sauteed mushrooms and accompanied by lyonnaise potatoes, you've got yourself quite a hefty bargain.