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Mayo on a Burger?

Monday, July 15, 2013



Let me say – right up front – that I’m against it. On principle.
"What Principle?" you ask. 
The same one that tells a Chicagoan that it’s just wrong to put ketchup on a hot dog, but sport peppers, bright green relish, and celery salt are de rigueur; that no right-thinking Texan would dream of putting beans in his chili, but that a citizen of Cincinnati knows that it must contain beans plus cinnamon, and should be served over spaghetti; that one region of the Carolinas prefers mustard-based barbecue sauce, but another insists on vinegar, that the BBQ meat of choice is pork in the south, but beef in Texas; that burgoo is made in Kentucky, but practically nowhere else; and that andouille means something totally different in Louisiana and France.
What I’m saying is that regional foods should stay regional. The malling, and big-boxing, of America has already made the country into one very long homogenous strip mall, so that that New Jersey and South Dakota are virtually indistinguishable. And yet we continually bastardize our regional foods, creating geographic monstrosities like “St. Louis BBQ Lobster Rolls, with Pineapple-Habanero Aioli, and Maple-Kosher-Dill Pickled Okra.” 
Hurriedly shoving such unholy alliances aside, some fundamental questions remain on the table. Even if we could get true Texas brisket, slow-smoked over mesquite, in New England – should we? Doesn’t that do for our meals what malls and big box stores have already done for landscape? What, really, is the point of travel -- if everyplace, and every cuisine, is the result of exactly the same focus-group-think?
America’s first hamburger sandwich was made at Louis’ Lunch, a little place in New Haven, CT, in 1900. They were served, not on buns, but on toasted white bread. You can still get one there, and they still use the same cast-iron toasters they used over a century ago. Here, in the Hudson Valley, Jitterbugs (hamburgers covered with brown gravy) are a local invention. Are either of these the correct, official, way to serve hamburgers? Of course they are, and of course they are not. What’s important is that the purveyors of generic mass-produced burgers have not yet rendered the local versions obsolete (much as they’ve tried).
Mayo on burgers couldn’t have been common much before 1920 (when Richard Hellman’s jars of ready-made mayo started appearing on a lot of store shelves). In 1927, Hellman’s and Best merged – and, today, the exact same mayonnaise is sold under two different labels, on each side of the Mississippi River. Someone, somewhere in the far west, had the idea that mayo was the best condiment for burgers– because, by 1941, James Beard was talking about “California burgers,” spread with mayonnaise. One extremely large company -- that coincidentally started in California, and boasts sales of billions of hamburgers – squirts a “special sauce,” that is primarily mayonnaise, on them. Beard’s version lacked only the sesame-seed bun.
That company may believe that it can unilaterally define hamburgers for the world, but their thinking is fundamentally flawed. There’s no such thing -- nor can there ever be such a thing -- as “the ideal hamburger,” and that’s just the way I like it. The perfect burger is the local version -- not a one-size-fits-all burger that’s the same wherever, and whenever, you order one. 
Food should be different in different places and at different times. I might (I said, “might”) even order a burger with mayonnaise – if and when I happen to be in California.
All of this burger talk has definitely put me in the cranky-old-guy rant mode, so let me ask you another question (or two, or three). Do you remember the ecstasy of popping the season’s first strawberry into your mouth, the perfumed juiciness of the summer’s first cantaloupe, the glorious taste of a ripe tomato, still hot from the sun in the garden, with nothing but a sprinkling of salt, or the slightly astringent crunch of the fall’s first mackintosh? Have you noticed that euphoria is mysteriously missing from your culinary calendar -- now that we have mediocre versions of all those foods, year-round?
Why do you think that is?
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A big thank you to historian Andy Smith. You can bite into more about this juicy subject in his books Pure Ketchup and Hamburger: A Global History.

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