Tradition and love: The American hamburger
Like anything good, the beginnings of the hamburger are covered in mystery, legend and competing claims of invention.
Some say the burger was invented in Germany — in Hamburg, of course. Others say it was invented in New Haven, Conn., by a man named Louis Lassen who ran a lunch wagon and named by sailors from Hamburg. Legend says he was out of steak for steak sandwiches, so he made the trimmings into a patty.
In 1904, at the St. Louis World's Fair, however, the hamburger changed the world. Along with the introduction of peanut butter, iced tea and cotton candy, vendors sold this new sandwich and news spread quickly. Even the New York Tribune reported on the miracle.
Few things are more common, more personal, more nostalgic than the American hamburger. It is one of the definitions of American cuisine. There is a burger on the menu at Delmonico's in New York. There is a burger on the menu of every small town or truck stop café in the country. Every backyard has seen flames rise when a fresh patty is laid on the grill.
Yet, the hamburger is not just one thing. Every backyard maestro, every chef, every cook in a greasy spoon diner puts his or her own twist on the idea.
So I wondered, with Labor Day weekend upon us and tailgating season just starting ... what would three good, successful, imaginative chefs in Fargo-Moorhead say about the idea of this dish?
If we all know what a hamburger is, and if a hamburger can be anything, what makes it so wonderful?
Chef Ryan Shearer, Hotel Donaldson
"It's a total comfort food," Shearer says. "It gives you a really nice feeling. It just takes you back. People get uplifted by food. That's how powerful it can be."
"What do I think a burger should be?" he asks. "It's pretty broad. I've read it before, and I agree that the burger is the little black dress of the restaurant industry. You can dress it up. You can dress it down. It can be really sexy. Or it can be really ordinary. That versatility is where it shines."
"Once you get past a ground meat patty, it can be anything," he says. "Beef is the big one. Bison is a classic. Ground chicken. Ground turkey. Even ground salmon, elk and other game meat. That's not even touching on vegetarian burgers. I make a sun dried tomato, chickpea vegan burger. We have a wild rice burger that's been on our menu for a really long time because people love it."
At the HoDo, the burger is a bison burger.
"Local bison. We sweat red onions with Worcestershire and a little bit of balsamic vinegar. Mix fresh thyme and parsley in the burger meat. Buns made by the HoDo's pastry chef," Shearer says.
One of his creations sits on the table next to us and I find myself staring.
"I love that look," he says, "when somebody is taking a bite of something for the first time, and it's fantastic. You can see them close their mouth, close their eyes a little bit, and you can tell they are really enjoying it."
Chef Mike Wald, Maxwells
"The burger revolves around that ground beef patty," Wald says. "If you get away from that you're getting away from tradition. If you're going to talk about an American classic, you have to talk about the ground beef patty. And the better that patty is, the better the burger is going to be. And not to cook it too long. You can have a medium rare burger, and it's delicious."
"There's a rancher out in Richardton, N.D., who does Wagyu beef," he continues. "And when they process their product, they send me the ground Wagyu beef."
(Wagyu is the highest quality of beef available in the United States.)
I've been watching Wald prepare a burger. Bacon on the grill. A hand torch to the goat cheese on top of the patty. Hunger is not the right word, I think. Desire is closer.
"The whole concept," he says, "is to get a balance of flavors on the palate. Little bit of tang from the goat cheese, some savory from the burger and the red onions, and the tomato jam is going to bring in a hint of sweetness. And then bacon is bacon — smoky, salty, everything."
I ask if it's possible to go too far, to go beyond the avant garde.
"There's no limit to it," he says. "I was in North Carolina a few years ago, and there was a burger that had a duck confit poutine on it, with a whole bunch of cheese. At first I thought, well, maybe you're losing sight of the burger, but it was amazing. It was one of those burgers you had to have two hands on, and if you sat it down you lost."
Mike cuts his burger to show the warm center, the moisture of medium rare.
What about veggie burgers, I ask.
"Oh man, no," he says. "No," he says. "Not here."
Chef Eric Watson, Rustica
Standing in the kitchen at Rustica, I watch Watson create something completely new. It's not on the menu. We're talking about the idea of a hamburger, but I'm finding it difficult to pay attention. I am watching a form of art.
"The best burger you ever had is the one that's nostalgic for you," he says. "You go back to your hometown, and you have that corner restaurant hamburger, and there's not necessarily anything super special about the ingredients, but it evokes all those nostalgic emotions. For an American chef, it's hard to find a dish that's more nostalgically driven."
What do you do, I ask, with the fact that every person who walks in here has had a burger before and, in fact, has had dozens of different versions of burgers before? How do you make it original and fresh?
"Just make it good," he says. "Make it quality driven. Make sure it's properly cooked, that there's a lot of moisture to it. Make sure the ingredients that go with the burger don't mask the burger, but complement it."
"Our patty is 2/3 beef and 1/3 chopped mushrooms mixed back into it. We're picking up a bit on the James Beard foundation challenge to be as sustainable as possible. Beef takes a lot of energy; it's not very sustainable. Mushrooms are super sustainable. So I mixed in portobello, shiitake and cremini, really finely chopped. I like the umami quality behind it."
I watch him assemble the layers — baby kale, smoked gouda cheese, beefsteak tomato — then take a bite. Oh Lord, I say. The taste is wonderful. Why is this so good? I ask. His answer makes perfect sense.
"It's put together with some care," he says, smiling. "There's a little love behind it."
Ingredients at the Hotel Donaldson
House-made city bun
Hydro bibb lettuce
Thick-cut smoked bacon
House bison patty
Ingredients at Maxwells
Cheddar black pepper bun, toasted on the grill
Ground Wagyu beef patty
House-cured and smoked thick-cut bacon
Goat cheese, toasted with hand torch
Grilled red onions
Ingredients at Rustica
Brioche style bun
Parmesan aioli on both top and bottom
100 percent chuck beef patty with addition of mushrooms
Smoked Gouda cheese
House-made tomato preserves
Pickled red onions
Local beefsteak tomato
W. Scott Olsen is a professor at Concordia College. He is the author of several travel/adventure books. His recent work combines nonfiction and photography to illuminate common but usually unseen places.