Burger Pilgramage: A Long Day’s Journey Into Condiments

September 30, 2005 at 5:09 PM | Posted in Food and drink | Leave a comment
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All my life, you see, I have been a picky eater.  I don’t like onion in things, chunks of tomato in chili revile me, and I don’t like salad in my…salad.  My tastes can pretty easily be defined by the great American food staple:   the cheeseburger.
I like my cheeseburger plain.  The one concession I am willing to make is cheese.  Without it, it’s just a hamburger, and I really don’t understand the purpose of a hamburger, except that it is an unfinished cheeseburger.  But I like the cheeseburger plain:  Usually no ketchup, definitely no mustard.  Any vegetables are clearly out of the question.  Pickles—here’s the thing about pickles:  I like pickles, just not on things.  I feel the same way about pecans.
Mayonnaise is completely wrong on many levels. If you like mayonnaise on your burger, you are either a socialist or a sociopath.  Either way it’s bad. What can I say about mayonnaise that hasn’t already been said?  It’s the leading cause of social problems, above poverty and crime.  It causes poverty and crime.  It leads to harder drugs.  It carries STDs.  It is a member of Al Qaida.  Canadians love it, and they just legalized gay marriage between heroin addicts.  Coincidence?  Indeed, mayo is a gateway condiment.
I have done ketchup, and although I like it, most times I feel it is not worth the effort.  Is this too much, is it too little—Either way, it’s going to drip on you in an unpredictable fashion, and instead of adding zest, too often it only masks the flavor of the meat.
So, ordering a cheeseburger plain is not so much of a hassle now, but Lord, back in the day—

Our class was on a field trip, who knows where.  I’m not really even sure what grade it was, but it probably 7th or 8th grade, so this was the mid-1970’s.  On the way back we got a real treat, promised—conditionally–on our behavior.  The teachers knew how to control junior high freaks: The bus stopped at that American Mecca of Capitalism in a Styrofoam container, McDonald’s.  Yes, we used Styrofoam back then.  That’s why you have to wear more sun block now.
Imagine the thrill of the mid-afternoon skeleton crew upon seeing a bus full of hungry middle-schoolers.
We filed in, alternately shushed and prompted to figure out what we wanted.  We made a loose crowd of approximately three rows, and I was about three back in one row, not bad.  There were no value meals at that time.  You paid full price, and you liked it.  Of course, everything was only a nickel.  Or was that in my Dad’s time?  I get them confused.  Everyone was saying, “Big Mac, fry, Coke,” or “Filet o’ fish, fry, Coke.”  And we all know how those come.  There were a few on deck, and the cook spastically throwing on more, in anticipation of our orders.
Then it was my turn.  “Double cheeseburger,” I said.  And I paused, to make sure they heard me, because they really try to ignore this part to see if they can get away with it.  I spoke the magic word, the fast food death-blow:  “Plain.”
An audible grown came from the crowd of kids, and there was a choreographed simultaneous slumping of the shoulders of everyone behind the counter.  Traffic outside stopped.  The birds in the trees stopped singing.  An angel cried. Not only—not only did a busload of kids drop in on them unexpectedly, dissolving the mid-afternoon sleepy-time lull they were enjoying, but then, to add insult to injury, one of these punks wants a special order.  I could see it in their faces; I was used to it.  They didn’t try to hide it, either, because for one, I was just a kid and I didn’t matter, but mostly because this was the 70s, and the “customer service” fad hadn’t really caught on yet.  But I was undeterred.
The other kids stared daggers at me, and blamed me for why their food was taking so long.  They completely ignored the obvious fact that there were over 30 of us being served my two octogenarians, a recently paroled addict, and a 20-year-old high school dropout.
And so it went throughout my entire life. I’d like to think that I am singly responsible for the operational change fast food restaurants underwent to provide more flexibility and faster service for special orders.
It could have been me.

Some years later, I was a stranger in a new town, working at night, going to school during the day, and I didn’t know a lot of people.  But I knew the manager of the McDonald’s I went to everyday.  She was pretty, with long dark hair.  I remember.  This was mid-80’s, I suppose. There was no drive-thru, but I wanted to go in and sit down and read by myself and eat in quiet.
So when I came in, she would see me, and call back the grill order before I even got to the counter.  She knew what I wanted, because I’d been getting the same thing for years.  A Quarter-Pounder with cheese.  Plain.  I recall coming in on more than once occasion, and there would be a crowd of people, and she would see me (one of the advantages of being tall, like knowing when it’s raining before anyone else) and call back the grill, and by the time I ordered it, it was ready, just like anyone else.  I’m sure they realized, at that point, the feasibility of providing quicker grill order service.  Someone probably won an award.
But I still underwent the scrutiny and criticism (and sometimes ridicule) of family and extended family for not eating more different things, but especially for not putting anything on my burger. Not much is sacred to my dad, but apparently that is.  I was practically disowned.
I heard the explanations, the “logic,” the “at least try it,” but could not bring myself to let it pass my lips.  Eventually they gave up on their attempts at an intervention, and let me be for the most part, with only the occasional plea to join the church of condiments.   I can only imagine the talk that went on behind my back.  “Did you hear about Bryan?  He likes his burgers *plain*.” My refusal to accept the spiritual healing they offered made me a pariah.
At some point almost 20 years later, my ironic evolution began.  I started working at a restaurant that sells ground-fresh daily, hand-made burgers, and I was able to prepare it exactly the way I wanted it.  I found I did like ketchup, in the amount I decided, and a very small amount of mustard.
They were, in a word, perfect.  Not only were the burgers large (my choice of half pound or three-quarter pound), but I had a choice of cheeses, and could cook it however I wanted. Medium is a really good temperature for a burger. Be warned, you can’t do this at any fast food, and at most other restaurants I wouldn’t recommend it. At McDonalds, I have a suspicion they grind the whole cow, hooves and all. I would be concerned about the meat handling procedures in some other places as well.  But we took the chuck roll, added trim from cutting other steaks, and ground it ourselves, and then patted out the burgers by hand.  More like pounded them out, but still—they were very fresh, and excellent cuts of meat.
Adding ketchup and mustard to my burger took it to a whole new level of sandwich enjoyment. It was like eating a burger for the first time.  Exciting, and a little scary.  I was nervous about how exactly to proceed at first, but ultimately I created the perfect burger paradigm for myself.  I mused to myself on that day that later in life, when my doctor would recommend I get more roughage in my diet, maybe I’d try the lettuce and tomato.
But I didn’t mean it.
At least I thought I didn’t.  Lately I have been actively trying to expand my horizons and try new things.  One day at work, I thought, “Why not?”  Why not, indeed. Worst-case scenario, I’d have to spit out one bite, and remove the lettuce and tomato.  I could handle this, as long as I didn’t think about it too much.  I already ate lettuce, having picked up the salad thing shortly after I got married.  The way I got to that was this question:  What kind of salad dressing would I like?  Doritos had a ranch-flavored chip that I liked, so I tried that.  With enough ranch dressing, anything tastes good.
This new adventure came to mind because I had just recently tried–for the first time in my life–a tomato.
Just recently, a co-worker gave me a slice of tomato and cheese on a cracker, with pepper on it.  Was this some kind of gourmet avant garde snack thing?  Luckily, she left me alone.  In the privacy of my cubicle, I carefully analyzed the situation.  I needed to try this.  This was my opportunity, and it was dressed up in probably the most appealing manner possible. As long as no one was looking–Thank God for cubicles.  I like cheese and I like pepper.  And everything is good on a Ritz, right?
I gingerly took a bite. I chewed, I swallowed.  No apparent harmful effects, no bitterness—I took another bite.  Pepper helps everything.  This one little cracker, with cheese and a slice of tomato, I ate in about seven tiny bites.  I was surprised when it was gone.
Okay.  Not bad.

So now, thusly armed with this knowledge and experience, I reasoned I should be able to choke down this burger with lettuce and tomato on it.  At the very least, I could say that I have tried it.  So I approached the burger carefully, and removed the top bun. This is already different.  When you eat a burger plain, you never lift the lid. You may pick up a corner to peek, to make sure it’s plain because people are sneaky and they will lie to you and you will end up with mayonnaise on your burger even when they promised you it was going to be plain, but you can never trust the kind of person that would put mayo on a burger in the first place, because it is obviously part of their manifesto.
The exposed, naked flesh of the burger stared back at me through grill marks, taunting me.  Taking a deep breath, I picked up the leave of green lettuce and laid it awkwardly on the burger.  It slid off the side, so I tried again, trying fold it nice and neat. I image the objective is to keep it on the burger.  It kept flopping off defiantly, and refused to stay flat.  In a very determined, British manner, I firmly placed the tomato on top, and used it to hold the lettuce in place.
There.
Then, in a moment of insight, I recalled my previous excursion into the Land of the Tomato.  I threw down a layer of pepper for suppression fire.  I replaced the bun.  There.  Done.  It was ready.
After this little dance, I was prepared, so I picked it up and bit into it.
I wasn’t sure what to think, so I bit again, and again.  I was chewing and tasting, and wanting more.  It was good.  It was really good.  Eating has always been a contemplative experience for me, and now I wondered–had I been denying myself this whole time, this wondrous, fabulous feast?
Nah.  I don’t think I was really ready until then.  My whole life had been in preparation for this moment.  Now I was ready.  I had seized the moment, I had grabbed, and I had bitten into it.
Since that first time, and the subsequent week after when I had a burger like that every day, I knew it was not a fluke. That’s how I knew this really is something special, something to savor, and spread the word about.  I am a changed man. Without being sacrilegious, I feel as though I am born again.
I really do feel that way in a religious sense as well.  Lost in the glorious fog of eating the perfect burger, and contemplating the wonder of it all, I had a new appreciation for all that God has given us, and it has confirmed once again that God does exist.
Follow my logic if you can:
Evolution plays no part in how a hamburger is going to taste. Hamburger is a processed food, albeit at a very basic level.  Animals (and humans) eating the primitive cow had not the tools necessary to grind meat into burger, form a patty, build grill, hook up natural gas, or develop a ventilation system. Similarly, all of the wheats and grains that we create use to bread and burger buns from did not go through a natural selection process to become Wonder Bread.  These things did happen through the hand of man, however.  Plants and animals were domesticated by man, it’s true, but surely the hand of God was there to guide them.  How else can it be explained?  Thousands of years ago, none but a prophet would be able to know that the work they did then would result in the perfection we have achieved today.  And did the “missing link” know how to make slices of cheese and wrap them in cellophane? I don’t think so, Darwin.
The final proof is in the vegetables:  the green leaf lettuce and tomato–two very disparate plants– nevertheless come together along with these other ingredients to create nature’s most perfect food:  the cheeseburger.
Obviously this could not have happened without divine intervention. The Lord knew that one day–when my faith would wane and by bowels would need roughage–I would try this delicacy, and the miracle of belief and taste would coincide in one glorious compilation, and I would be called to spread the word throughout the land.
It truly is the miracle of Intelligent Design.

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