Homage to the homely hamburger

Karl Wells
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"I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." That line spoken by Wimpy, one of my favourite characters from the old Popeye cartoons, was my introduction to the hamburger. Every week I'd watch chubby, mooching Wimpy eat his way through a great pile of hot hamburgers. (They always seemed to have steam rising from them.) I'd laugh my head off as J. Wellington Wimpy popped one after another into his wide-open gob. I wasn't nearly as interested in Popeye and that horrible looking canned spinach he'd constantly pour down his gullet.

When I was a very young child the simple hamburger was a sandwich that (like most things) was a mystery to me. My mother didn't make them. Hamburgers were as foreign to mom's generation as curried lamb. However, I became fascinated by them and with Wimpy's never ending hunger for them. It was my belief that since Wimpy ate so many they had to be really good. I later discovered that they were.

A finished hamburger with toppings and homemade fries

"I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." That line spoken by Wimpy, one of my favourite characters from the old Popeye cartoons, was my introduction to the hamburger. Every week I'd watch chubby, mooching Wimpy eat his way through a great pile of hot hamburgers. (They always seemed to have steam rising from them.) I'd laugh my head off as J. Wellington Wimpy popped one after another into his wide-open gob. I wasn't nearly as interested in Popeye and that horrible looking canned spinach he'd constantly pour down his gullet.

When I was a very young child the simple hamburger was a sandwich that (like most things) was a mystery to me. My mother didn't make them. Hamburgers were as foreign to mom's generation as curried lamb. However, I became fascinated by them and with Wimpy's never ending hunger for them. It was my belief that since Wimpy ate so many they had to be really good. I later discovered that they were.

My first taste of a real hamburger happened at a Marty's snack bar (owned by Gordon Martin) on Water Street. It was a real made-from-scratch hamburger because as Gordon's daughter Connie Hayward once told me, "In the snack bars you actually had to do the cooking. You had to take care of the order, cook it, serve it and collect the money. You did it all."

Heavenly burger

That first hamburger was a far cry from a potted meat or sliced ham sandwich. It was a warm, thick, toasty, tender, juicy, meaty flavoured chunk of beef slathered with ketchup and mustard between two soft pillows of bread. When I bit into it both sides of my mouth got smudged with yellow and red and melted fat. It was heavenly. Finally the mystery had been revealed. Now I knew why Wimpy was so crazy about those "buns with brown meat inside!"

I've been reminiscing lately about the joys of the unpretentious homemade hamburger - like the ones you got at Marty's and restaurants of my youth. My friend Kathie and I have monthly lunch dates. I usually pick restaurants where I know or suspect you can get a decent burger. Kathie loves burgers but mainly the uncomplicated fresh kind made from good ground beef, not pork. She thinks the burgers at Zachary's are pretty good. That's because they're unadorned.

Another friend asked me the other day to recommend a place for a good burger. I struggled a bit but then remembered the burger hybrids at YellowBelly and "S" at the Majestic. They have fabulous burgers but I call them hybrids because they are the burger equivalent of a car, fully loaded with all the optional features. The buns are bigger and craftier; the beef is prime and the condiments many and elaborate.

Night and day

It's hard to imagine that most kids today only know hamburgers made from frozen pre-formed patties with extenders to make the meat go farther. That's what many burger chains use, as well as most restaurants. The difference between the two is like night and day. Nothing can match the taste of a hamburger made from fresh, 100 per cent ground beef. This may sound strange but it's because it tastes "beefy." That's what carnivores long for and love.

Today Chef Bob Arniel owns a cooking school and catering company called Chef to Go in St. John's. He's a renowned gourmet chef. The other day, as he was broiling a burger for his own lunch he reminded me that from age 13 to 16 he made hundreds of burgers in a family run restaurant in the village of Roseneath, Ont. "Yeah, I made burgers, cleaned tables, pumped gas, you name it I did it."

I asked Chef Arniel to give me the secret to a great basic burger. "Well, the real key is not mixing the beef too much when you're forming the patties. When you over mix you denature the protein in the meat and it doesn't hold together well. Of course using lean ground helps because you won't get as much shrinkage from the fat rendering out. And for a real beefy taste you shouldn't add much more than salt and pepper. Oh and don't forget to toast the bun."

We love 'em

Nobody really knows where the hamburger originated. It's a safe bet that it happened in the United States and that it began as a street food in the 1800s. We do know that because of chains like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and A&W over 5 billion hamburgers are sold to North Americans every year. That's a staggering figure. So it's safe to say that like Wimpy most of us still have a taste for the "buns with brown meat inside." But, just so we never forget the joys of the made-from-scratch burger, why not treat yourself to one soon. The difference will amaze you!

Homemade Hamburgers

Ingredients:

1 lb lean ground beef

1 egg

Half an onion, very finely chopped

1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper

4 good quality hamburger buns

Grape seed oil

Vegetable oil spray

Toppings:

Ketchup

Mustard

Lettuce

Sliced tomato

Thinly sliced onion

Method:

Place lean ground beef in a large mixing bowl. Add onion, Worcestershire sauce, and pinches of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Whisk egg slightly in a separate bowl and add to beef bowl. With clean hands mix all ingredients together being careful not to over mix.

Place tin foil on a sheet or tray. Spritz foil with vegetable oil spray. Taking approximately one-fourth of the beef mixture use your hands to shape a ball. Place ball on foil sheet and flatten with a spatula to about three quarters of an inch thickness. Make an indentation with your thumb in the middle of the patty to help it stay flatter while cooking. Repeat this procedure three more times until you have four patties of equal size. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

When ready coat a heavy skillet (I use cast iron) with grape seed oil and bring to a moderate heat. Cook patties for five minutes on each side. It is important that hamburger meat be cooked through. Place a piece of lettuce on the bottom half of each bun followed by a cooked patty on each. (You should toast the buns beforehand.) Patties may then be topped with a combination of sliced onion, tomato, ketchup, mustard or whatever you desire. Cover with remaining bun halves. Serve with homemade fries.

Organizations: Gordon's, McDonald's, Burger King Wendy's

Geographic location: Water Street, St. John's, Roseneath United States

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  • Castaway
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Quoting Karl Wells: Nobody really knows where the hamburger originated. It's a safe bet that it happened in the United States and that it began as a street food in the 1800s.

    ---------

    According to Theodora Fitzgibbon in her book The Food of the Western World - An Encyclopedia of food from North American and Europe:

    The (hamburger) originated on the German Hamburg-Amerika Line boats, which brought emigrants to America in the 1850s. There was, at that time, a famous Hamburg beef which was salted and sometimes slightly smoked, and therefore ideal for keeping on a long sea voyage. As it was hard, it was minced and sometimes stretched with soaked breadcrumbs and chopped onion. It was popular with the Jewish emigrants, who continued to make Hamburg steaks , as the patties were then called, with fresh meat when they settled in the U.S.
    ---
    The Origin of Hamburgers and Ketchup, by Prof. Giovanni Ballarini:

    The origin of the hamburger is not very clear, but the prevailing version is that at the end of 1800' s, European emigrants reached America on the ships of the Hamburg Lines and were served meat patties quickly cooked on the grill and placed between two pieces of bread.

  • David
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    There hasn't been a good burger in this city since Hamburger Heaven shut down!!

  • Aubrey
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    Karl Well's comments bring back some memories. Marty (Gordon Martin) had relatives who lived across the street from where I lived in St. John's and he would visit them in a big, long Cadillac. I recall Marty's also had a snackbar close to the former Nfld. Hotel. Some refer to these old snackbars as 'greasy spoons', but their hamburgers were delicious. Thanks for the recipe Karl.

  • guy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Your right David the best hambugers around came from hambuger heaven the best ever why it closed down who knows I can taste them now how sweet it is.

  • Castaway
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    Quoting Karl Wells: Nobody really knows where the hamburger originated. It's a safe bet that it happened in the United States and that it began as a street food in the 1800s.

    ---------

    According to Theodora Fitzgibbon in her book The Food of the Western World - An Encyclopedia of food from North American and Europe:

    The (hamburger) originated on the German Hamburg-Amerika Line boats, which brought emigrants to America in the 1850s. There was, at that time, a famous Hamburg beef which was salted and sometimes slightly smoked, and therefore ideal for keeping on a long sea voyage. As it was hard, it was minced and sometimes stretched with soaked breadcrumbs and chopped onion. It was popular with the Jewish emigrants, who continued to make Hamburg steaks , as the patties were then called, with fresh meat when they settled in the U.S.
    ---
    The Origin of Hamburgers and Ketchup, by Prof. Giovanni Ballarini:

    The origin of the hamburger is not very clear, but the prevailing version is that at the end of 1800' s, European emigrants reached America on the ships of the Hamburg Lines and were served meat patties quickly cooked on the grill and placed between two pieces of bread.

  • David
    July 01, 2010 - 20:20

    There hasn't been a good burger in this city since Hamburger Heaven shut down!!

  • Aubrey
    July 01, 2010 - 20:19

    Karl Well's comments bring back some memories. Marty (Gordon Martin) had relatives who lived across the street from where I lived in St. John's and he would visit them in a big, long Cadillac. I recall Marty's also had a snackbar close to the former Nfld. Hotel. Some refer to these old snackbars as 'greasy spoons', but their hamburgers were delicious. Thanks for the recipe Karl.

  • guy
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    Your right David the best hambugers around came from hambuger heaven the best ever why it closed down who knows I can taste them now how sweet it is.