After a series of mistakes and kitchen disasters, I suppose it was more or less inevitable that I would go back to making hamburgers again. After all, what could be more natural for a man, fallen into a losing streak and with what amounts to culinary performance anxiety, to rush back to his comfort zone? And for me, we all know what that means. Hamburgers. I’ve written a whole book about them, eaten thousands, written copiously, voluably, interminably, with passion and acuity and sick, sad obsessiveness. I go around doing hamburger demos.
Then, out of the blue, Danit asked me, “how come you haven’t made me a hamburger lately?”
Music to my ears! I had a frozen bag of LaFrieda beef in the freezer, and some very dense, unnatural American cheese that we got at the kosher gourmet store near our house in remote Ozerkistan. I bought some Arnold white unseeded buns. I don’t know why I always forget that Arnold buns are cut two thirds down. How dumb is that? The bottom bun bears 100% of the weight of the burger and gets 90% of the juice, and yet it is only 33% of the bread. That makes no sense at all! But I put the thought far from my mind. The last thing I wanted was to be fretting and stressing about elements I had no control of. I got the pan hot; but it was too hot, and when I wiped some butter on for a first burger, the foam and milk solids began to to blacken and burn. An ill omen! Yet it was with a sense of manful optimism that I formed my pucks, salted them liberally, and toasted the buns well ahead of time. I knew, too well, that the whole process of making a perfect hamburger was demanding, pressurized, and unforgiving. One second too long and the burger was a gray glistening loofah; a few seconds too little and the cheese was waxy and vile.
I don’t need to tell you that I burned the first burger. You should have seen that much coming. The first burger is your best chance to get the burger right. You’re in the best frame of mind, your pan is clean, and your kitchen isn’t filled with grease smoke. Your wife is hungry. You know where everything is. When you throw it away with one bite eaten, flinging it angrily into the garbage, and start in on a second burger, you are already on tilt. Your odds have gone down. The second burger, therefore, was ill-formed, and broke apart when I tried to turn it. “Don’t freak out,” Danit encouraged me. “Just make another one. While it was true that my hamburgers generally only contain a couple of ounces of beef each, this one had been a little larger, the better to withstand my imprecision. Throwing it away felt bad. I made a third one, and this time hit on the head. The crust was brown, the surface salty, the interior glisteningly deep pink, seething with clear juices and the whole supporting a properly viscous blanket of white cheese. No ketchup or mustard was required (it never is on a great hamburger) and I served it a cold slice of raw red onion about the thickness of a Nestle Crunch bar. I heard her bite it, and saw her face, and I knew I still had some mojo left. But I knew that it had been a close run thing.
Postscript: If, after all this, you still want to see me in action, I have two burger demos coming up in the next few weeks. On April 1, fittingly, I will be giving hamburger life lessons in Austin, Texas, as part of the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival; and on March 3 I’ll be in Columbus, OH, home of White Castle and Wendy’s, telling an august body of burger eaters that they’re doing it all wrong. What arrogance!