I sprinted to the car—in sun, rain, or snow—every Friday, threw my backpack in the back seat, jumped in the front, and with perfect posture, sat still with eagerness, while my mom paid Mrs. Pitcock and chatted for a few minutes about next week’s schedule. All of the adult formalities were pointless to me. It was dinner time.
Rarely did my mom and I slip through the drive-thru; we almost always ate inside McDonald’s. The sparkle of our favorite white plastic booth soothed the week’s worries, and when I slid down onto its seat, I had to grasp the table so as to stop from sliding the length of the glossy bench and slamming into the window that overlooked the Vermilion River bridge.
I remember how the bridge looked golden in early autumn’s dusk, barely there under winter’s blackness and the snow that camouflaged every inch of the lakeside town, or spattered because of bright headlights and spring’s hard rain against the window. My mom and I didn’t talk much over our burgers and fries, which was fine. Thinking back, words would have tainted our simple enjoyment of one of our favorite foods. Our Friday evening ritual created an unspoken bond: a constant I could rely on. Fridays at McDonald’s were our moments to escape long workweeks, evenings of homework, and phone calls about alimony and custody. We didn’t need to say the burgers “hit the spot” because they simply did, on so many levels, time and time again.
To this day, every Friday, I crave burgers for dinner.
Until I read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, I was a fast-food-burger-and-fries junkie through the turmoil of high school, late nights of undergrad, and the stress of graduate school. But about four years ago, my fast food addiction came to a jarring halt when I learned about the careless industry of fast food with all its neglect of workers, disregard for animal welfare, and its prominent role in the environment’s destruction. I scurried to find a suitable replacement for my all-time comfort food.
Dedicated to finding a local, sustainable farmer who feeds his cattle only grass, I discovered Luginbill Family Farm. Instantly they became my supplier for all-cuts beef, in addition to lamb, pork, and chicken. Figuring out the cooking methods and sauces to replicate the food of my childhood has been an entirely different feat, a challenge I happily embrace, if it means after the first bite I can taste nostalgia and feel satisfied.
The Ultimate Cheeseburger
(recipe adapted from Adam Fleischman in Food and Wine June 2011)
Ideally, the best ground chuck comes from local farmers or butchers, which is what I normally use. However, considering that’s not always possible in every region or season, I use Niman Ranch, a national distributor that practices sustainable farming and yields excellent flavor. When you prepare the meatballs, fight the impulse to over-shape them; it will make the burgers’ texture more dense. Also, only “smash” the each burger once; continual pressing and flipping will dry out the patties and ruin the flavor. “Smashed” burgers are great because they always fit the buns; no more “where’s the beef?”!
1 ¼ lb quality ground chuck beef
4 slices cheese, preferably Boar’s Head American
4 toasted burger buns each slathered with YumYum Sauce (recipe below)
Heat cast-iron skillet or griddle over high heat.
Careful not to overwork the meat, form four balls; place them in the skillet and cook for 30 seconds. Using a large, metal spatula, smash each ball into a 4-5 inch patty. Season with salt and pepper; sear for 2 minutes. (Smoke is possible; turn on the hood or open a window, if necessary.) Flip, cover with cheese, and cook for two minutes. Cover with foil tent and cook one minute more. For medium-well or well burgers, cook one to two minutes more. Place on toasted buns slathered with YumYum Sauce and serve.
(recipe adapted from The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen June 2011)
To accommodate gluten-free family members and friends I figured out the flavor profiles from the Bon Appetit recipe and used fresh herbs to replace the non-GF relish and adobo sauce. Yields about one cup.
2 teaspoons grated onion
½ teaspoon fresh dill, finely chopped
2 leaves fresh lovage, finely chopped
1 tablespoon gluten-free ketchup (preferably Simply Heinz)
½ teaspoon sriracha sauce (preferably Sky Valley by OrganicVille)
¼ cup mayo (homemade or Hellman’s)
dash of Worcester sauce
pinch of coarse salt
Combine ingredients in a medium bowl. Keeps about a month in the fridge.
What Bambi Taught Me about Ground Beef
When I was little, I pleaded with my parents to take me to McDonald’s. At the time, we lived on a farm 60 miles away from the nearest golden arches. My dad raised the two staple crops of Nebraska: corn and beef. Once a year, my parents would send one of the herd to the butcher and sell the rest at a livestock auction. The meat came back wrapped in white butcher paper: steaks and roasts as well as the less common parts like tongue and heart. The ground beef came packaged in white bags with red plaid designs on the plastic. My mother made great burgers with that meat. Still, the McDonald’s hamburger, the cardboard cube of the Happy Meal box, and the toy all beckoned to me.
One summer during McDonald’s Bambi promotional, I spent a week with my Aunt Gail who lived only blocks from a McDonald’s. She took me there nearly every day. Since my visit only lasted a week, I only got one toy in the month-long series of toys. The Bambi figurine: plastic and posable, doey-eyed and spindly-legged. The duplicitousness didn’t bother me. I saved each Happy Meal box to set up the forest scene cut-out, three times, and played with all three identical Bambi’s at once on the blue shag carpet in Aunt Gail’s living room. Of course, as an adult, I think, Bambi, so rife with symbolism. In the movie, Bambi’s mother dies off screen. Her death is punctuated only by gunshot and then absence. Truth is obscured. When I think about it, I hope that Bambi’s mom at least made good venison and kept some rural, poverty-stricken family from going hungry. But the fact that the death is visually omitted means that no one is implicated in the death. At one moment, we can sob for Bambi’s mother, and at the next, eat a juicy piece of mother cow. There’s a disconnect from the slaughter to the supermarket shelf. No wonder it’s so easy to do terrible things to our ground beef behind our backs.
While I might have been just a victim of target marketing, I’ve thought about the allure of the McDonald’s burger. It took me years to realize that the reason I loved the taste of McDonald’s hamburgers so much was because they were topped with a good dose of yellow mustard and onions minced finely enough to escape perception. This was at a time when I wouldn’t let raw onions near any other hamburger. Once I figured this out in middle school, it was clear that I didn’t really notice what the hell I was eating. I had been duped. And the string of e. coli scares that followed in the late nineties, made it clear how naive everyone was about hamburger. In sixth grade, my best friend’s little brother ate an e. coli tainted fast food burger, and as a result of the near fatal illness had to have a kidney transplant a few years later. Then, came Eric Schlosser’s expose of industrial food in his book, Fast Food Nation, where I learned that e. coli comes from shit in the meat, and Robert Kenner’s documentary Food, Inc., where I learned that meatpacking plants add an ammonia-laced meat by-product to ground beef in an attempt to kill that e. coli. While I was in college, I stopped eating meat altogether partly because I had a vegetarian boyfriend, but partly because I knew too much about the meat. It may have started with slipping a few raw onions on the burger, but it ended with fatal pathogens. We had been lied to.
Now that I eat meat again (the vegetarian boyfriend became my husband, and then stopped being a vegetarian), I want it to be meat I can trust. I try to meet my meat. I’ve found a local farmer (http://www.omegameatsohio.com/) that raises his beef only on pasture. Like deer, cows are ruminants, which means they are biologically designed to eat grass. Factory-farmed cattle are fed grains that make them ill, which is where e. coli begins. The ground beef I buy from the local farm is processed at a small-scale butcher shop, and even though I trust the quality of their product, I still wanted to make ground beef myself. There’s something gratifying about seeing for myself exactly what was going into the patties, and there’s no accounting for the difference in freshness. As meat is ground, the process increases surface area, allowing more air and light to reach it. This causes oxidization, which turns the meat an unappetizing shade of brown and degrades the taste. When I make my own hamburger, only moments transpire from when the meat extrudes in bright, red strands to the time the beef patties sizzle on the skillet.
A couple times a year, I visit the farm and see the animals before they are butchered. While I still haven’t had the opportunity to see the whole life cycle of the burger from birth as a calf to being butchered, I would, given the chance. Knowing where my beef came from connects me back to when my family used to know the cow that gave us our beef. And as long as I put some yellow mustard and finely minced onions on the burger, it tastes just like my childhood burger, but better.
You will need a meat grinder for this recipe. I use the Kitchen Aid meat grinder attachment with the finest grinding plate. It is also important to chill the grinder in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before starting, and to let the meat chill in the freezer before grinding. Not only will this ensure a better finished product, but the meat won’t clog the grinder when it’s cold.
1 lb. beef short ribs
1 lb. chuck
2 t. salt
Place the meat grinder in the freezer. Meanwhile, cut the short ribs off the bone. Cut the short ribs and chuck into 1 inch-sized chunks. Place in the freezer for about 15 minutes. Take grinder and meat out of freezer. Sprinkle meat with salt. Follow manufacturer’s directions for grinding the meat. After initial grinding, grind the meat again for best texture. Form into burger patties and cook immediately.