Strange Saturday night rituals and the sizzling religion we cooked up
I’ve been obsessing about hamburgers lately. There are probably several reasons for this. Mainly, it’s because I’ve been trying to eat less during the day, which makes me ravenous and, well, hamburgers…
We’re not talking about the grey disks of vaguely hamburger-like substance, served in a soggy bun on a plastic tray and dipped in florescent sauce from a tube before being joylessly and mechanically dispatched for the digestive tract to try and make sense of.
Nope. Nope. And nope.
A real hamburger is an icon, the golden son of culinary evolution. It is, in its truest form, the very model of balance and unity, all parts working towards one goal. For the duration of consumption, it is the entire world.
And it shouldn’t be messed with.
I actually credit my Mom and Dad for being the first to bring real hamburgers to Ireland. When we moved to Dublin from LA in the early 1970s, the nearest thing you could get here was something called a ‘bun burger’ and the meat tasted a little like sausage meat gone off.
In what was once the filthy, seething port of Dun Laoghaire, near where I grew up, there was something called a ‘Wimpy Bar’, a mysterious cave with streaked glass. “Never go in there,” Dad would cough as we’d roll past in our little blue Hillman, waving his hand in front of his nose and cranking up the window as though whatever might be emanating from there could possibly be worse than the black smoke belching from every lead-lined car around us, or the cigarettes Mom was stubbing out in the car’s overflowing ashtray.
I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. Saturday night was hamburger night in our house. Religiously. Dad even had a special grinder that attached to a table and was operated by a hand crank, so we could have our meat bloody without fear of dying a hideous and tortured death.
Other constituents were harder to source. Ketchup at that time was an incredibly sweet and viscous gel that required vigorous bottle-spanking to procure. So Dad made his own, at least once, from tomatoes, sugar, vinegar and spices. The process took 12 hours but yielded full bottles and jars of all shapes and sized that could be stashed away in the cupboard for months.
American mustard was impossible to find. Once, a squeeze-bottle of the stuff arrived from the States and was treasured like liquid gold until it ran out, then the bottle was cut open to extract every last glob.
Iceberg lettuce was unheard of. There was only the limp, buttery stuff that dissolved into pond scum on contact with heat, so Dad had seeds sent from the States and began growing a stunted, crisp enough equivalent – all for hamburger night.
Even the tomatoes seemed small and mean, unlike the giant American ‘beefsteak’ variety that could be sliced into slabs. Try as he might, Dad couldn’t grow them, and so we made do. His home-made pickles, on the other hand, came close to the real deal, even though eaten from the jar they could make your face look like it was being sucked down a drain.
These simple ingredients, sandwiched inside a decent bun, were the hallmarks of the perfect burger and the search for the nearest thing in 1970s Ireland, just for our once-weekly family ritual, became a lifestyle. We grew stuff, ground stuff, pickled and bottled stuff, all for this.
Dad would season the ground meat with spices from a shop that also sold hops for making beer. Cumin, oregano, garlic powder, onion salt – these were specialty items back then. The trips to that shop actually inspired Dad to start brewing.
If we still had home-made tomato sauce, or the relish Mom began making too, he’d add that to the meat. No breadcrumbs, no egg. Are you crazy? That’s so meatballs hold their integrity in a sauce. Hamburgers just need to hold it together long enough to get to your mouth.
He’d leave the meat in a giant ball to rest at room temperature, as he prepared the toppings, or while he winced through a yeasty glass of dark foam from the reeking barrel under the stairs, Billie Holiday crackling in the background.
Those Saturday nights were sacrosanct. You’d be crazy to make other plans. The sizzle and mist as the surface of the meat caramelized under red hot bars – we rarely barbecued, it was easier to control the heat in the kitchen grill.
Sometimes I’d have friends over. It was like bringing them to church. It tickles me to think how many had never had a hamburger. Some took the good word home. Soon I knew of at least two other families doing ‘hamburger nights’.
More than four decades on, it doesn’t take much more than a good hamburger, usually made by me, and a nice beer brewed by someone who knows what they’re doing, to excite my pleasure receptors.
I don’t need nonsense toppings like restaurants heap on top of burgers that look more like giant, carbonized meatballs. The whole point is that it fits in your mouth and gets there without disintegrating. How difficult is that?
I’d even go so far as to say that my hamburger upbringing has taught me one of life’s most important lessons: simplicity is everything, but simple needn’t mean second best, just that the best doesn’t need dressing up.
It just is what it is.