Way Beyond Burgers
BY DOREEN MUNSIE
As a child, the burger to me was the best sandwich — satisfying my cultural craving for a warm meal, and very American.
When you become an adult, your burger journey takes a slight detour.
Science has made it possible to eat a meatless burger that tastes like a real burger. With a blend of plant-based ingredients the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger can mimic burger meatiness with surprising authenticity.
This achievement is not without debate. The plus factors of sustainability — less reliance on methane-producing cattle, reduced consumption of unhealthy red meat, ethically avoiding animal meat — are weighed against the reality that these are chemically-engineered, high in sodium, have the same amount of fat and calories, and are processed.
I take my burgers seriously. On a recent trip to La Jolla, California, our wonderful host and hostess asked if there was anything special we’d like to do during our stay. Play golf (directed at my husband) at Torrey Pines? Drive to Coronado Island? Visit the San Diego Zoo? I knew I could leave all of that in their very capable hands, but the one must-do on my list was to have an In-N-Out burger.
I am not a burger snob. I’ve never considered springing for a $100-version made with Kobe beef, but I do enjoy a good burger. The first one I ever had was from the hot lunch school program at my new elementary school in Queens, New York. I was in the fourth grade. Born in the Bronx to Chinese immigrant parents, I ate mostly Chinese food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Up until then, my mom cooked virtually every meal for me. Even after I started elementary school, I was able to go home (two blocks from school) and have her serve me lunch every day, which typically involved either rice or noodles.
Things changed when we moved to Queens. Though the school was just as close as the one in the Bronx, kids could not leave midday to go home to eat. Instead, their moms would pack them sandwiches. To me these cold things served between two slices of bread were not very appetizing. Mercifully, my parents signed me up for the school’s hot lunch program. I ate a lot of institutional meals that I didn’t question, but that is where I discovered the beauty of the burger. Basically a sandwich, a meal you can eat with your hands, but <cooked>. The burger to me was the best sandwich — satisfying my cultural craving for a warm meal combined with a more socially popular option. And very American.
As we became assimilated to suburban life, a second family car allowed my high-school-aged brother the freedom to explore the open road (of Northern Boulevard) in search of weekend lunch food alternatives. We discovered the wonders of White Castle, the oldest burger chain in the country, and fell for those small, square, steamed burgers with the holes and little bits of onion. He would buy them by the bagful for himself, my two sisters, and me.
We became connoisseurs of fast food chains, frequenting the top sellers: McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s — each of us able to discuss the pros and cons of Whoppers vs. Big Macs or Quarter-Pounders. We didn’t think about what we were eating, the ingredients or the calories. Only that it was fast, easy, cheap, and very tasty.
I graduated from fast food chains after high school. The college and grad school phase can be summed up by the old Belushi “Saturday Night Live” “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sketch, by which I mean eating lots of burgers in Greek diners and coffee shops. As a young working professional, your palate develops, your wallet thickens, and you upgrade to slightly nicer burger joints. In Manhattan, that includes places like Burger Heaven – a slightly retro Manhattan chain where I had lots of lunch dates with my then-boyfriend, now husband. I lived across the street from a Jackson Hole (whose regulars included Jerry Seinfeld and Jennifer Aniston), where I briefly entered the gourmet burger realm. Their nearly Frisbee-sized patties are billed as “house-aged”.
When you become a mom, you think differently. Health. Nutrition. You are now responsible for the example you set, for what you serve your children, and you think about what you eat, since you now have to stick around because there are people counting on you. Your burger journey takes a slight detour. Maybe you start eating turkey and veggie burgers and buy leaner beef for backyard BBQs in your new suburban home.
Then, life continues down the road, the kids leave the nest, so you can shamelessly indulge again. I don’t eat burgers often — I‘m not actively seeking clogged arteries — but I do partake in the many available nearby options: Elevation Burger, Five Guys, Bare Burger (where I tried a skippable Bison burger), and a local BSF (Burgers, Shakes & Fries) where the burgers are served on white bread, slathered with butter, and pan-fried like a grilled cheese sandwich. I admit, in 2010, I requested Shake Shack for our wedding anniversary dinner. Restaurateur Danny Meyer had just opened his first suburban location in Westport, Connecticut, and I needed to try that grass-fed burger!
Maybe now it’s not so surprising the California trip to the famous Pacific Coast burger chain was on my bucket list. In-N-Out offers fresh, reasonably-priced burgers with a cult following. At $2.85, it was a good burger. Adored by celebrities and chefs alike, Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain were famously infatuated. While it didn’t quite live up to my expectations who am I to argue with Beyoncé and Tom Hanks?
Americans love their burgers and eat 50 billion a year. They are perhaps the most distinctly American food, although our chains are global. The first time we took our girls to Paris, they were little, and we were saved by a McDonald’s that brought them glee with its familiar, taste-like-home consistency you can find no matter where you are in the world. Hey, they don’t call them Happy Meals for nothing.
Burgers are the great equalizer. You can still get a White Castle burger for under a dollar. Everyone eats burgers. Even presidents. In 2009, President Obama famously went out to get a yummy, greasy, Five Guys burger, and again in 2014 to a Shake Shack that opened in D.C. And, today, it goes without saying how the current president feels about McDonalds.
We invented, perfected, mass-produced, and now even imitate it. Burgers inspire ingenuity and individualism. We have choice and we respect the preferences of others. Comfort food, Americana, they bring people together. In that In-N-Out on the other side of the country we chatted with a young couple at the next table. What are the odds they turned out to be friends of our daughter and her boyfriend? Organic or lab-grown, square or round, even gluten-free without the bun – have it your way. It’s all possible.