I remember in my impoverished youth reading a quote by Saul Bellow, the great Canadian-born writer who gave us the wonderful “Herzog,” describing the perfect hamburger, which he considered one of the most wonderful things he loved about Chicago. I can’t find the quote anymore, but it went something like this: It’s a flat piece of ground hamburger meat on a plain Wonder Bread roll, and covered with a cold piece of Velveeta cheese.
Many of my hundreds of readers complained that I missed National Hamburger Day, May 28. I apologized, but Sept. 19 was National Cheeseburger Day, and that’s close enough.
We all know that a German cook, Otto Kuase, created a very popular sailors’ sandwich made of a beef patty fried in butter served with a fried egg between two toasted buns in 1891 in Hamburg, Germany. It was called the “deutsches Beefsteak,” German for “German beefsteak.”
It seems that sailors traveling on ships between Hamburg and New York requested a similar “Hamburg-style” sandwich at American steakhouses, and it caught on. You knew that; you just forgot.
My mother, who as a child went to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, kept in her scrapbook a flier that read “Fletcher Davis, known as ‘Old Dave,’ put meat on two pieces of white bread and created the hamburger.”
There you have it. We’re Americans. We grew up with hamburgers. You old guys bought one for that girl on your first date, along with fries and a large fountain Coke. Your grandkids probably do the same thing today. Like camelhair overcoats and Chuck Taylor sneakers, some things never go out of style.
Hamburgers are us. They’ve written songs and poems about burgers. They’re part of every occasion in our lives — barbecues, weddings, even funerals. Yes, I’ve munched a burger in a home or two after the dearly beloved was laid to rest, with pickles, onions and relish. Not the beloved, the burgers.
They’re part of our American literature and film.
Ernest Hemingway loved hamburgers. They were the one thing he missed most when he was starving in Paris. Imagine, with all of the greatest food there, he missed hamburgers.
Papa had his own favorite recipe: “ground beef, onions, garlic, India relish and capers, cooked so the edges were crispy but the center red and juicy.” Yeah.
John Steinbeck slipped them into “Cannery Row” and everything else he wrote: “In Monterey before he even started, he felt hungry and stopped at Herman’s for a hamburger and a beer.”
In “Grapes of Wrath,” he describes how a fry cook “lays a half bun on the meat, lays the buttered half on top and adds a dill pickle, two black olives.” Yeah. I read that in New York when I was broke. It was haunting.
In the film version of the great James M. Cain’s masterful novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Lana Turner stands by in white shorts as John Garfield munches a delicious greasy burger with onions.
Hamburgers became the principal icon of the Great Depression because they were cheap and plentiful. In every movie that came out of Hollywood in the ’30s, the great American hamburger took top billing. Gangster icons James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart munched them in corner dives, just before they were shot down in the street.
During those bleak years, people would come out of the movies where burgers were fried and served up so realistically you could smell the onions and taste the greasy buns, and head straight for the cheap burger joints.
This is where Billy Ingram comes in. Billy grabbed on to the symbol and started opening his famous White Castle hamburger stands, turning out thousands of them for a nickel apiece.
Tonight I’m dining alone as she, who loves a good burger, is out with friends consuming haute cuisine. So I’m whipping up Papa Hemingway’s recipe, a big American burger with minced garlic, green onions, capers, one egg whipped and one-third of a cup dry of red wine. America. I love this country.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.