I have an autographed picture from Tony Trabert, a former tennis great, which says “To the Hamburger Kid, Michael. Eat well and live it up!”. If you know tennis, you’ll know that a lot of burgers have passed through these bowels since old Tony was slapping it around with the likes of Rex Hartwig and the Panchos Segura and Gonzalez. All kinds of burgers. So here’s a thought or three on the subject, or at least my opinion on what makes or breaks a burger.
Let it be known – up front – that in my opinion any meat, including hamburger, that is cooked past medium rare is a waste of meat. Period. Cook out the juices and the flavour becomes that of the crap with which one dresses the sandwich. Present a fresh juicy patty with glorious flavour and that taste will come through no matter how much foreign material is slathered over it.
A couple of decades ago I had a burger at a well-known chain of family restaurants, cooked as I preferred (with any error on the rare side!). The very next day I went to the same store and was informed that it was now mandatory for them to cook their meat until it was the same gray flavourless slab of leather common to all the purveyors of fast food. This was of course due to the ridiculous paranoia that followed an infamous lawsuit in the USA (Washington state, I believe) against a Jack-In-The-Box store that sickened a multitude of customers (and killed a few children!). That was a tragedy, and was due only in part to a state law that asserted the meat should be cooked to a temperature of 155 degrees Fahrenheit. The FDA mandated only 140, but we all know the Feds know less than the States, whose representatives are closer to the wishes of the populace. (After all, the Feds still think marijuana use is deserving of censure while most of the states of the union have a bit more educated viewpoint.) At 155 degrees, the meat should be safe. Well, that it is, but the fact presupposes that good quality, fresh meat is used. Obviously JITB slipped up on that one.
For the next two decades I have gone through the same bullshit tale wherever I eat – “O, I’m sorry, sir. We must cook the meat to an interior temperature of 160 (some say 172) degrees Fahrenheit”. It may as well be Centigrade, for all it matters. Why not 190 degrees? Do I hear 200, anyone? Past the point where E.Coli bacteria fold up their tents it’s not the temperature; it’s the quality and freshness that count. Considering the barfburgers for which fast food chains are known, it is no surprise that facepackers get the runs. Tough shit (so to speak) I say. Eat cheap meat from discount stores and you get what you deserve.
I now have an affidavit printed that states that I will not sue the store if I get ill from their burgers when cooked as I prefer. Curiously enough, most stores refuse even to accept such a legal resolution of responsibility. And I offer to show them my picture I.D. and signature to guarantee the document. It appears reason has no place in the ring with perceived risk.
Recently a new specialty burger joint opened nearby. I decided to give it a try. After all, since they proclaimed the finest meat fresh ground daily it should serve safely even as a tartare, let alone cooked medium rare. Needless to say, I was refused my preference. The resultant burger, compared to fast food stores like the Fallen Arches, Windy’s, the Ass Wipe, the Bugger King and the Fairy Queen was similar to that of a Lexus compared to a Camry, or more accurately, an Edsel to a Lada. Better, but not a helluva lot. For me, it was a not unexpected disappointment.
Gluttonous for punishment, I returned a few days later. I asked for the two meat patties of the doubleburger to be combined into one. This was in the forlorn hope that the center might be – horror of horrors – pink. The young cook, a black-bearded stickler with nether cheeks tightly clamped, told me that if he did that he would have to burn the outside to a crisp in order to get the center to the “proper” temperature. I sighed and shook my head and said “Fine; make it two patties if you must, but please don’t burn them.” Yeah, right…
Through the serving window from the kitchen I watched him “cook” it. I put quotation marks around the word because calling what he did “cooking” is an insult to those who actually know how to do so. He burned those patties so crisp they chewed like jerky. Despite my pleas (plural) that it was “time to flip the burgers” and “please take them off – now!” he refused. I told him to check the temperature but he said he didn’t have a thermometer (a boldfaced lie, as I saw one being used the first time I was there). I also asked for my bun to be double toasted. He did so, but only on one side, the inside, so that the outside of the halves became soggy as a dunked doughnut. Further, he did the toasting long before he scraped the meat off the grill, so the bun was completely cold. The kid ought to have been cooking tube steaks and marshmallows over a blazing campfire.
In the California desert there is an outfit called “Burgers and Beer”. It serves absolutely the best hamburgers I have ever eaten, except of course for those I cook myself. In that case it’s a tie. I order my burgers simple: One half pound in size (with Serrano peppers chopped fine throughout), on an oversize, freshly double-toasted bun. I have it “plain”, and normally dress it with nothing more than a bit of Heinz 57 sauce. Now that is a good burger. I have been a regular diner at the Rancho Mirage B&B store in the winters, at least thrice weekly, and have – with a large circle of acquaintances and friends – brought them a plethora of new and regular customers. They deserve it.
What should these middle-of-the-road (and better) restaurants do? For what it’s worth, here’s what I suggest:
Get a lawyer. Have him draw up a one page document that can be offered to customers for their signature. Have it state that they will not find their store responsible for any negative effects of any meat that is prepared as they ask, even if it does not satisfy the letter of some ludicrous law. Do not use frozen meats; rather ensure that the meat is of top quality and is ground fresh daily. Then start serving some decent burgers.