By Jim Duncan
The hamburger is a contradiction in a bun, simultaneously the scourge of nutritionists and the piece de resistance for low carbohydrate dieters — hold the bun, please. Although they have been around for at least 800 years, they celebrated their 100th birthday a few years ago. Despite being the most popular meal of the American masses, they fulfill any gourmet criteria. They are both: hot (meat) and cold (lettuce and condiments); sweet (ketchup) and sour (pickle); acidulous (onion) and alkaline (bun). Textures range from charred to soggy with every color of the rainbow stacked between their buns, even Maytag blue.
Novelist Tom Robbins finds them spiritual. “A hamburger is warm and fragrant and juicy. A hamburger is soft and non-threatening. It personifies the Great Mother herself who has nourished us from the beginning,” he wrote.
Burgers have never been so prominent in our culture, our economy and our politics as now. Americans will eat more than 8 billion of them this year, accounting for four out of every 10n sandwiches served in restaurants. Jeffrey Tennyson wrote in “Hamburger Heaven” that burgers are “the one thing that unites Americans as a people.”
In a nation where diet books dominate best-seller lists while obesity rates reach all-time highs, it’s fair to say that Americans have a love/hate relationship with burgers. In most opinion polls, America’s most popular burger (McDonald’s) is also named the worst burger. Hamburgers influence seemingly disparate cultural trends, and vice versa. The E coli bacteria led to overcooking burgers. During the hey days of the Atkins Diet, and now the Paleo diet, burgers often went bunless.
America’s favorite food is actually older than this nation. Tartars brought shredded beef to Europe in the 13th century but ate it raw. Germans began cooking it, in Hamburg, like a steak. In promotional lore, burgers were first served as a sandwich at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. However, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut claims to have been selling them since 1900 and Hamburg, New York claims they originated there in 1895. The Hamburger Hall of Fame agrees they were invented in 1895, but in Seymour, Wisconsin.
Hamburgers were first served in buns in 1912. Cheeseburgers first appeared in the 1930s, the same time burgers overtook hot dogs as the most popular American dish and the first fast food hamburger chain, White Castle, appeared.
If the Great Depression made inexpensive burgers popular, the booming stock market of the 1990s made them decadent. Burgers, with Kobe beef and foie gras, became regulars in Las Vegas restaurants for $100. Their time was short. After the stock market collapse of 2008, burger decadence gave way to affordable excellence and $1 menus.
George Formaro has probably put more obsession, compulsion and love into perfecting Des Moines’ burger culture than anyone. His efforts include creating different burger recipes for Gateway Market, Django, Centro, Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, Gateway Market Café and Malo.
“Our mix at Centro and Django blends steak cuts like hangar, skirt and cheeks with brisket and shoulder in a 75 percent lean mix. There is an added cut of beef and I want to keep that information to ourselves. We also use a coarser grind at Django. All our burgers at Centro and at Malo are cooked over wood. At Gateway we cook thin burgers on the griddle and thick ones on gas grills. All Django burgers are cooked on gas grills. The fire at Django burns fat nicely, so a coarser grind works better there. Zombie burgers are cooked on flat top grills and seasoned differently. The grill at Malo pulls smoke up more directly giving those burgers more smoke flavor,” he explained.
Formaro designed a griddle at Zombie that replicates cast iron and the salt seasoning there is designed to help form the crust. “I once thought that making a good burger was one of the easiest things in the kitchen. Now I think it’s one of the hardest. Getting that crust right took months of testing and experimenting,” he recalled.
Buns aren’t simple either. Centro and Django both use a ciabatta bun, but Gateway and Zombie needed something different. Gateway patties are smaller than the others and the ciabatta bun wasn’t soft enough. Malo uses brioche buns. While Formaro personally likes American cheese on burgers, he realizes that people go to restaurants for something more special. So Zombie Burger offers more than 20 specialty burgers, with exotic cheeses and other things.
Alba owner Jason Simon has a similar love for the simple burger. His burgers are made with a mix of short ribs, hangar steak and New York strip.
“I love the beef flavor I get from those cuts,” he explained. His cheeseburger is one of the great bargains in town, at $7 including hand-cut fries, soup or salad. Monday nights, burgers are just $5. Alba also uses a 25 to 75 fat-to-lean mix and only cooks burgers in carbon steel skillets heated over super high flames with a spraying of 80 (canola) 20 (olive oil) with a high smoke point. That points out another burger contradiction. The most expensive mixes (95 percent lean) that one finds in supermarkets lack enough fat to sear correctly.
The late Paul Trostel, owner of Trostel’s Greenbriar, Chips and Dish, personally believed burgers were best appreciated in small, independently owned taverns. “Places like Pickett’s Pub, where they hand pack their fresh burger and cook hell out of it quickly, create a special burger milieu. You have to have a little bit of juice running down your lip to enjoy a burger,” he said.
Burger also brings out provincial instincts. As food writer Calvin Trillin wrote, “Anyone who doesn’t think the best hamburger place in the world is in his own hometown is a sissy.” So, considering the extreme subjectivity of the matter, it’s hard to evaluate burgers. One thing is for sure: a good sear produces flavors and aromas from a “Maillard Reaction” which is to proteins what caramelization is to carbs. Searing can be done in a skillet, on a flat top grill, over an open flame, or burning coals. Electric ranges, though, do not get hot enough. To this end, Steve Little at Chef’s Kitchen created a special range that one usually only sees in Chinese wok stations. Smashed burgers (patties pressed hard for about 15 seconds on high heat grills), a standard practice 50 years ago, have made a comeback as places realize that a good sear equates to good flavors and aromas.
Burgers have been hanging around with new friends this century. Maid-Rite’s signature loose meat burgers are now served 12 different ways. At Big City Burger & Greens, one chooses amongst nine additions and 17 extras. Among the former are roasted tomatoes. Extra choices include fried eggs, jardinière and fried prosciutto. Cheese choices include feta, queso fresco and chevre.
Tally’s grinds a burger mix that is half pork belly. Jethro’s “Adam Emmenecker” includes an 8-ounce burger, plus a huge tenderloin, melted cheddar cheese, 8 ounces of brisket, several slices of bacon, two large buffalo chicken tenders, two squares of fried cheese, and white cheddar sauce. Cityscapes will serve burgers with deep fried pickles. At The Greenbriar, Troy Trostel serves burgers with any sauce in his vast European repertoire. Legends offers a mango and habanero burger. Gateway and Malo have black bean burgers. Django serves a “Rossini burger” with foie gras, truffles and cheese. High Life Lounge and El Bait Shop have very popular burgers with a side for less than $4.
Other local burgers are more traditional. Bistro Montage and HoQ make their burgers with old-fashioned, grass-fed beef. Bistro Montage serves its with truffle aioli. Maxie’s burgers have been made the same way for more than half a century. So has Jesse’s Ember’s burger. Ted’s Coney Island and George the Chili King have been making the same loose meat burgers for even longer. There is nothing simple about them, though. Both include very secret recipes. Ted’s grinds its own meat, from inside rounds, and cooks it heavily peppered and secretly seasoned on the stovetop, for three hours, with constant stirring. George’s method is similar, but more even secretive.
Burger life blood
Mustard is the soul of sausage but ketchup is the blood of burger worship. Elisabeth Rozin wrote that ketchup “fulfills the symbolic atavistic lust for human blood, with its deep red color, rich flavor and heavy salinity.”
In 1876, Henry Heinz added tomatoes to what had for centuries been a fish sauce in Asia. Today the FDA demands that American ketchup include tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt, onion or garlic, and spices. Neither anchovies nor oysters, the progenitors of the sauce, are required here.
Even in America, not all ketchups are created equal, not even all Heinz’s. Heinz’s “best if used by“ date is exactly 15 months after the day of manufacture. The best ketchups are made between Aug. 1 and Sept. 30, when tomatoes are ripest in middle America. So, aficionados, look for “use by” dates in November and December. To fully experience Rozin’s mad love, open your bottle with a sharpened stone. RELISH