Opinion: The Humble Hamburger

A sandwich by any other name, yada yada yada. The humble hamburger is as elemental as it comes: meat and bread. But when does a hamburger stop being a hamburger? When you doll it up to the point it needs to be deconstructed to be eaten, or you end up wearing it, or when the flavor of the good-quality meat is lost in a tower of absurd accoutrements, that’s when. Make no mistake, we have taken these towers apart piece by piece, even eaten them with a knife and fork, but call those tottering towers of tackiness whatever you like, are they really burgers?


The simple meat and bread combo has been around for literally centuries. The Apicius cookbook, a collection of ancient Roman recipes from around the 4th century, has a recipe for isicia omentata, a baked meat patty that is mixed with, among other things, bread soaked in white wine. Not a burger, of course, but proof that the simple bread and meat combo has endured.


As for what IS a burger, it looks something like this:


A smashed patty (preferably two; double the surface area and double the area for the delicious maillard reaction to do its thing) on a squidgy potato bun (toasted or at least warmed a little) with one slice of melty, plastic American “cheese” per patty. A little ketchup or some kind of special sauce (typically ketchup and mayonnaise with a few other things). Pickles are fine but we can take or leave them. We can also take or leave tomato and lettuce, but if you feel good about having some vegetables with your beef then go for it. And that's it. The question Antony Bourdain wants you to ask yourself is: does anything beyond beef, bun and cheese add anything?

The thing about the aforementioned spires of sloppiness is there is no chance of actually tasting the beef, and surely that’s the point of a hamburger. Any beefeniess is lost as soon as barbecue sauce, bacon or onion rings are piled on top. The coagulating of these overpowering flavors amounts to a sloppy mess of flavor where they all battle for dominance, but none win out. Using good quality beef in these monstrosities is frankly a waste. It’s enough to make a rancher weep.


These beacons of bad taste are tantamount to a dereliction of a chef’s culinary duty and, frankly, show little regard for the rancher that raised the meat, the baker that baked the bun, the smallholder that cultivated the lettuce and the customer. At Wayfinder, we kneel at the altar of Bourdain. If he says it is so, it is so. And he has some thoughts on burgers.


The Gospel according to Saint Bourdain

  1. A Soft Squishy Potato Bun

  2. A Hunk of Well-ground, Good-quality Beef

  3. Processed Meltable Cheese

  4. Able to be Eaten with One Hand


Want to make isicia omentata at home? Here is the recipe:


500g minced meat

1 French roll, soaked in white wine

1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

50ml liquamen (a Roman fish sauce)

Pine kernels and green peppercorns

A little caroenum (grape must simmered until it has been reduced by ⅓)

Baking foil


Instructions:

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Mix the minced meat, the soaked French roll, the ground pepper and the liquamen. Form small burgers and top with the pine kernels and peppercorns. Place them on the baking foil and brush with the caroenum. Grill until cooked.