When J.D. Salinger passed away in 2010, a media frenzy broke loose, rehashing every lurid detail of the intensely private Salinger’s life, and adding previously unknown biographical tidbits—none of them particularly flattering. It was during this time that I learned about his tumultuous relationships with young girls, his religious practices, his work habits, his sexual dysfunctions, his paranoias. I learned, too, about his eating habits, which included a strict, organic and macrobiotic diet. He avoided cooking any of his food, if possible, believing that “cooking food robs it of all of its natural nutrients,” and when he did cook it, he was very specific about his methods and his cooking oils. He avoided pasteurized dairy products, “refined foods like sugar and white flour—even whole wheat flour, honey, and maple syrup.” His famously spurned lover, Joyce Maynard, said in her memoir that for breakfast they would eat whole grain bread and frozen peas, and for dinner, “bread, steamed fiddlehead ferns, apple slices, and sometimes popcorn.” If they had meat, it was “barely cooked organic ground lamb.” Maynard also claims that after going out to eat pizza with his son, Salinger would make himself vomit in order to “rid is body of impure food.”
In isolation, I’m not particularly interested in Salinger’s food issues, but in relation to his fiction it fascinates me, because Salinger’s stories are full of eating-disordered characters. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass and a little girl named Sybil discuss how they both like to chew on candle wax. Seymour then launches into a story about his invented bananfish, who “lead a very tragic life.” “They swim into a hole,” he tells her, “where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs,” he says, gorging themselves on so many bananas that they are sadly unable to get back out of the hole. After this strange, make-believe story about the dangers of over-eating, Seymour goes back to his hotel room and shoots himself in the head.
Then there is Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye, who despite being a sixteen-year-old boy, professes to be “a very light eater.” He usually just drinks orange juice for breakfast, which is why, he’s “So damn skinny.” He alludes to the fact that at one point he was put on a special diet “where you eat a lot of starches and crap, to gain weight and all,” “but he “didn’t ever do it” (107).
And there is Franny of Franny and Zooey, who refuses to eat while on her dinner date with Lane Coutell, not even picking at the chicken sandwich or sipping her glass of milk as her irritated date stabs at his frog legs and escargot. She is sickly and shivering and once the waiter takes her untouched food away, she falls into a faint on her way to the restroom. Franny’s mother, Bessie, worries obsessively about her eating habits, and is particularly incensed by Franny’s preference for cheeseburgers, telling her son, Zooey:
She said maybe she’d eat a cheeseburger later on. Just what is this cheeseburger business? From what I gather, she’s practically been living on cheeseburgers and Cokes all semester so far. Is that what they feed a young girl at college these days? I know one thing. I’m certainly not going to feed a young girl that’s as run-down as that child is on food that isn’t even— I don’t think it’s at all impossible that the kind of food that child takes into her system hasn’t a lot to do with this whole entire funny business. Even as a child you practically had to force that child to even touch her vegetables or any of the things that were good for her. You can’t go on abusing the body indefinitely, year in, year out—regardless of what you think.
Zooey, who is as disordered as Franny when it comes to food (and religion), counters that “Christ lived on cheeseburgers and Cokes..for all we know.”
A year after all of the posthumous Salinger gossip erupted in 2010, a new juicy tidbit emerged. The articles all read like an entry from Us Weekly’s “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” Salinger, notorious recluse and weirdo, was actually kind of normal, according to this newly-uncovered batch of letters. He liked tennis, church dinners, trips to Niagara Falls, and (gasp!) Burger King cheeseburgers. People obsessed for weeks over his penchant for Burger King, trying to make sense of the fact that someone so other could love something so terribly normal.
There is hardly any food (besides maybe apple pie) as nostalgically American as the hamburger. Perhaps because of their prominent place in America’s food-history, and in so many people’s personal food-histories, hamburgers inspire a lot of strong opinions. In recent years, people’s love of the hamburger has manifested itself in an onslaught of fancified, outrageously expensive hamburgers, made with swanky custom blends and piled high with showy toppings. Once a simple, fast, and inexpensive food, hamburgers are now priced around $15 on average in New York City—a city that also boasts $120, $175, $295, and $666 hamburgers. I count myself among the people who have strong opinions on hamburgers. My strong opinion is that this craze is silly. Hamburgers are, and should remain, a simple food.
The number one rule is this: BUY GOOD MEAT. Buy it from a source you trust, one that cares about how their animals are raised and the freshness of the product they are selling you. This goes for buying any meat, but it is especially important with ground meat, since pre-packaged ground meat carries a higher risk of e-coli, and is often filled with shady stabilizers to increase shelf-life. Obviously I’m biased, but if you live in NYC you should probably head to The Meat Hook for your meat. If you don’t live in NYC and you are unsure of where to buy good meat in your area, Eat Wild is a great resource.
I wrote about all of this recently for Food52, but this blog is the place where I can really say what I mean. So here is the part where I get really intense and take out all of my summertime, hamburger-season, workweek aggression on you.
Regardless of what food magazines and newspaper articles tell you, you do not need a custom blend of fancy cuts to make a good hamburger. The claim that ground beef comprised of the most expensive cuts on an animal will make the best burger makes me insane. The people telling you to do this have a bottom line in mind—namely, getting you to pay up to $33 a pound for something that should cost no more than $8 a pound. These custom blends mean that you are paying the price per pound of that particular cut, rather than the flat cost of the shop’s ground beef—if you’re paying that much, you might as well just buy and enjoy the steak as is, rather than grinding it up and covering it in so many condiments that only the most well-trained palates will be able to discern the flavors of each cut.
Besides being a giant waste of money, it is also totally unnecessary. The best burgers are not made from the fancy cuts, they are made from the hard-working, cheaper cuts on an animal. Because these muscles are working harder, there is more blood flow going through them, which means more flavor. And, since you’re grinding the meat up, you don’t have to worry about toughness like you would if you were grilling one of these less expensive cuts, so a burger made from these cuts is a win all around—cheap and flavorful, what more could you want?
These cheaper cuts, especially cuts from the shoulder, like chuck and brisket, will also have a higher fat content, which is much more important than cuts when it comes to ground beef. For the juiciest and most flavorful burgers, you need a fat content that is, at minimum 20%–the best burgers have closer to 30% fat. If you are itching to create a custom blend, or you are only able to find pre-packaged ground beef that you don’t feel good about, try grinding your meat at home. Doing this gives you more control over fat content and freshness, which is great if you don’t have a butcher you trust. To reach the fat content you are aiming for, try a combination of fattier cuts like chuck, brisket or short-ribs with leaner cheap cuts like bottom round, sirloin, eye round, top round, or shank.
So now that we’ve covered the basics of quality, cuts, and fat content, let’s talk about some other tips to make your burger great.
-Weight: a super thin burger will be around ¼ pound—4 ounces. A big, chunky burger will be around ½ pound—8 ounces. A regular in-between burger is about 1/3 of a pound—between 5 and 6 ounces.
-Pattying: you don’t want to overwork your patty—this will make
it tough and chewy. Alternately, underworking your meat will lead to a crumbly mess. Try to find a healthy in-between. I like to form my meat into a ball and slap it back and forth between my hands about four times before shaping it into a patty. If you don’t have a patty press, use a big jar lid to get your patties into a uniform shape and size. After working your meat, simply press it into the lid and voila!
-Indent: When any muscle cooks, it contracts. If you’re making a burger, this can mean that your meat will shrink up and turn into a tiny hockey puck that is impossible to find once it’s inside of the bun. Making an indent in the center of the patty solves this problem by helping the patty to hold its shape as the meat contracts. After shaping your patty, simply stick your thumb in the center and gently press to create an indent.
-Seasoning: Fattier, hard-working cuts, also mean that all you need to season your burger is some salt and freshly-cracked black pepper—these good quality, cheap and fatty cuts will have enough flavor on their own to be the star of the show. Don’t work the salt and pepper into the patty, season it on both sides once it’s shaped and about to go on the grill. Keeping these seasonings on the outside will help the burger form that great, caramelized crust.
-Pan Cooking: I tend to prefer a burger cooked in a cast-iron skillet to any cooked on a grill, because all of that delicious, juicy fat that renders out gets reabsorbed into the burger. This gives it maximum flavor and an almost fried crust. If you have a grill, but still want to give your burger this treatment (and get out of your hot kitchen), put your cast-iron on top of the grill!
-Grilling: clean your grill before cooking to avoid sticking. Just get your grill warm and scrape it down with a wire brush. Once the grill it clean, grease it using a paper towel or pastry brush dipped in neutral oil. Do not press the burger down with a spatula while cooking! Stop doing that! I know it looks and sounds cool when it hits the coals, but you are pressing all of the delicious juice out, stop!
Makes 1 Double Cheeseburger
½ pound ground beef
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon coarse black pepper
½ teaspoon unsalted butter
2 slices American cheese
1 whole burger bun plus 1 middle bun
Raw white onion
Separate your ground beef into two (¼-pound) chunks. Press each ¼ pound of meat into the lid of a large jar to form it into a patty. Tap the patty out and press gently in the center with your thumb to make an indent. Sprinkle salt and pepper evenly over the patty on both sides.
Place a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Melt butter and cook patties at medium-high for about 1 ½ minutes per side—or until the patties get that nice brown crust on them.
Turn the heat off and place the cheese slices on the patties.
While the cheese is melting, slice lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles.
Spread ketchup and mustard on one side of each bun.
Place one patty on the bottom bun, layer with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. Place middle bun on top and repeat with remaining patty.