June 10, 2007
As faithful Burger Quest readers have no doubt noticed by now, this Quest is not a straight line. It's not a linear progression from Point “A” to Point “B” (“B” for “Burger,” natch) but a meandering journey through various highways and byways, a journey through the present informed by the lingering memories of the past, sepia-toned like old Wild Western photographs of eager young men setting out to meet their future.
Today I’m basking in my own future, sitting smiling and sunburned in my Soon-To-Be-Parents-In-Law's backyard hours after a Jack and Jill wedding shower thrown by my Wife-To-Be’s Aunt and Uncle, where we chowed down on tasty eats (sausage rolls, cheese, grapes, meatballs... party-type food) and opened gifts surrounded by family and friends beneath a bright blue sky. After the shower a handful of partygoers accompanied us back to Margie and Randy’s (my future in-laws) for more backyard summertime fun featuring more tasty eats: hot dogs and Randy’s homemade burgers.
I wasn’t even questing today, but The Quest found me. Just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III (which never actually happened, right? Let’s all agree that there were only two Godfather movies and they were both great and leave it at that), “every time I think I’m out-- they pull me back in!” Just as Michael can’t escape his criminal past, I cannot escape The Burger Quest.
But why would I want to escape? Chowing down on delicious hamburgers may have some health related pitfalls, but let’s face the facts: eating burgers, regardless of toppings, condiments or side orders, is, in the long run, still better for your health than running an international criminal syndicate. So forget the Mafia and pass me one of Randy’s delicious burgers.
Margie and Randy live near Danforth Ave (known to Toronto locals as “The Danforth”), renowned for its countless Greek restaurants. Although I have seen Greek Burgers for sale on various menus (feta, onion, olives), this isn’t how Randy makes ‘em. He follows his mother Stella’s recipe: fresh ground beef mixed with minced onions and a bit of egg for binding. Onto the grill they go: my Future Father-In-Law (sounds like a movie: Future Father-In Law! Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Charlie, before you meet my father, there’s something you should know. He’s... from the future.” SMASH! Arnold breaks through the living room wall with his mighty cyborg fist. “Charlie, if you want to marry my daughter, you must return with me to the future and help me defeat an evil army of nuclear-powered robots. Here-- you can borrow my jacket.”) and my Stepdad stand by the grill talking politics and are soon engulfed in a huge cloud of burger smoke.
I can’t remember my biological father (who still lives down in Texas) ever cooking hamburgers, although I’m sure he did at some point. He did tell me a burger-related story, though. As a young man, my Pop was an army officer who had arrived in Germany fresh off the boat from Oklahoma. One fine evening Pop decided to leave his base and explore the nearby town. He stopped at a restaurant for dinner and, as he knew very little German, struggled with the menu. At last he found a word he recognized: steak. “That,” my Pop said, stabbing his finger at the menu. “Bring me that.” I can picture my Pop sitting at a table in some tiny German bistro, his army khakis nicely pressed, his camera by his side, closing his eyes and fantasizing about the delicious flame-cooked slab of meat that was on its way. Pop opened his eyes and there in front of him was a raw egg pooling atop a mound of raw hamburger. “Steak” it was, in a form he had never seen before: “Steak Tartare.”
My Pop didn’t realize it at the time, but he was a unwitting participant in a food ritual dating back to the days when Genghis Khan (1167-1227) and his Golden Horde of Mongol Horsemen conquered two-thirds of the known world. The Mongol Army moved quickly, war horses thundering across the plains. Often the Mongol Warriors had no time to stop and eat so they would eat on the go, chewing on raw meat patties formed from the scrapings of lamb or horse or mutton. The patties were then tenderized beneath the Warriors' saddles as The Golden Horde charged into battle. Hey! My raw lamb patty tastes horsey!
In 1238, The Mongol Army, led by Genghis Khan’s Grandson Khubilai Khan, swarmed into Moscow. During the occupation The Russians adopted the Mongol cuisine, calling the raw shredded meat “Steak Tartare”-- “Tartars” being the Russian name for “Mongols.”
By the 15th century, raw minced beef was a delicacy which could be found throughout Europe. In the 1600s, German ships operating from the port town of Hamburg began trading with Russia. Among the many goods winding their way back to Hamburg was “Steak Tartare,” or, as the Germans called it, “Tartare Steak.”
In the 18th century, Germany had the largest ports in the world. Sailors from all four corners of the globe spread the word of “Hamburg Steak.” By the 19th century German Immigrants were arriving in the United States-- mainly New York-- in large numbers, bringing with them Hamburg Steak: low-grade shredded beef served both cooked or raw and sometimes stretched by adding bread crumbs and minced onion.
My future Father-In-Law’s onion-studded hamburgers, then, are closer to Ye Olde Hamburger Experience (“Hamburg Steak”) than the Texas-style all-beef burgers of my youth. Undoubtedly my Pop, who was none too impressed by his close encounter with Steak Tartare, would have gladly traded that mound of raw meat for one of Randy’s flame-cooked burgers. Alas, these burgers are Eastern European style rather than Texas-style and thus The Quest for the burger of my childhood cannot end here, surrounded by family and friends, eating burgers lifted fresh from a sizzling grill. That said, who am I to argue with History? Eastern European-style hamburgers, as made by a master chef like Randy from his mother’s recipe, are delicious. I chow down on a big oniony burger, pause to catch my breath and then go back for seconds.
Thank you, Randy. Thank you, Grandma Stella. Thank You, Margie and Thaba and Don and Frances and all the Wedding Shower and Backyard BBQ Guests. And a very special thank you to you, Emma, my lovely Wife-To-Be. My stomach is full, I am happy and content and somewhere the Burger Gods are smiling.