When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
For many Americans, summer means afternoons spent tending burgers on the grill. The iconic food has long been ubiquitous in our culture, but a new burst of “better burger” chains has infused energy into the familiar meal. We talk about the history, appeal and execution of burgers of all kinds.
- Tim Carman Food Writer, The Washington Post
- Mark Bucher Founder and Co-owner, BGR The Burger Joint; Owner, Medium Rare
- Andrew F. Smith Author, "Hamburger: A Global History", part of "The Edible Series" and "Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine"; Executive Editor, "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America"
How To Make The Perfect Hamburger Patty
Get tips like how big to make your patty, what ingredients to use (hint: sometimes all you need is salt and pepper), why your thumbprint plays an important role and how to tell the difference between medium well and medium rare.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on Food Wednesday. What's appealing about hamburgers for you? Are they nostalgic, a rare treat, a convenience food? Do you have a strong childhood memory associated with burgers? Share it with us. What's your go-to burger joint in and around D.C.?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAre there any chains you wish would move into this area? Do you come in over or under the average of the three burgers Americans eat a week? How do you like your burger? Share your favorite toppings with us. Got questions on the best way to prepare patties at home? We've got answers, give us a call, 800-433-8850.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhether you enjoy them neatly wrapped in paper while sitting in your car or with your elbows on the table as toppings and condiments drip and drop to the plate below with a patty made of beef, turkey or veggies, the burger is an inimitable often delicious quintessentially American meal.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOne so deeply rooted in our culture that it provokes strong emotions. Some feel there's only one right way to make it, their way, while others take a variety is the spice of life approach.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhatever your preference the all-American dish is going through a kind of Reconnaissance with new burger joints popping up around town nearly every day adding to an already rich history and wetting our appetite for more.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk about the history and the lure of burgers with us is Tim Carman. He is a James Beard award-winning food writer who works for "The Washington Post" where he writes the "$20.00 Diner" feature. Tim, good to see you again.
MR. TIM CARMANGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Mark Bucher. He is founder and co-owner of BGR, the burger joint and owner of Medium Rare. Mark, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK BUCHERIt's my pleasure, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Andrew Smith. He's a food historian who has authored and edited numerous volumes including "Hamburger: A Global History," which is part of the edible series he also teaches food studies at the New School in New York. Andrew Smith, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANDREW SMITHIt's my pleasure, love hamburgers.
NNAMDISo it would appear, does the entire planet. Tim, burgers may seem simple and straightforward but they often spark debate other what's best. What is it about them that so appeals to people and inspires this often intense interest?
CARMANYou know, aside from the fatty flavor of burgers it's everything. It's like we grow up with hamburgers. Parents throw them on the grill so we have them from like a childhood memory and I think quite often that informs our debate and our interest and our love because we've eaten them from the very beginning.
CARMANUnlike a lot of foods that we start sampling, you know, later in life like many of us unless we grew up in a vegetarian household, grew up with a hamburger at some point during the summer, parents threw onto the grill. And I think that flavors sticks with you and it makes you, as I've learned over the years, every opinionated. Everyone seems to have an opinion about hamburgers.
NNAMDIAndrew Smith, is this all about, how much of your affection for this dish is about nostalgia?
SMITHIts largely about nostalgia, but I think historically, the strength of the hamburger was its low cost and it really deals with materials left over from preparing other types of meat. You just grind it up and you prepare. But the versatility is also crucial, meaning that if, whatever flavor you like you can add that into a hamburger.
SMITHSo it really isn't limited to any one thing. It can be many different flavors and for most of us we, I do have childhood memories as I'm sure most people do.
NNAMDIWell, for Mark Bucher it all started with Mr. Coffman's burgers. Tell us about Mr. Coffman.
BUCHERThat is exactly right. It was my father's good friend and a neighbor up the street and he was a, back in the day remember the butcher shops you'd have back in the day?
NNAMDIIn Philadelphia, yes.
BUCHERGrowing up outside of Philly but back in the day go to the grocery store for your groceries and you'd go to the butcher shop for your meat and he ran the local butcher shop in Cherry Hill, Nj. and we'd go get our meat there.
BUCHERIt was called the Prime Shop I'll never forget it and every weekend he would roll out his grill at the end of his driveway and he would cook burgers for all the kids and that smoke would waft up and we'd be playing kick the can or kickball at the end of the block and it was like the bat signal went up.
BUCHERI mean, it was like the ice cream man could drive by and not a kid would move. they were waiting for, he would wear a chef's hat and the smell of these things going and from blocks around kids would just stop and run and grab a burger off his grill and he just lived to do this every weekend.
BUCHERAnd it became ingrained, as Tim said, it was that smell that just became ingrained in you and now, even now as an adult, when I walk by or I'm in a parking lot and I pick up that scent it just brings it all back. It's a marker.
NNAMDIHe followed his nose to a career as a matter of fact.
BUCHERRight, exactly. It's a marker.
NNAMDIAndrew, nostalgia can sometimes cloud our memories when it comes to the history of the dish and its American origins. There are as many creation stories as there ways to serve a burger. What's the story you put the most faith in?
SMITHWell, there's lots of stories out there and there's relatively little primary source of it in supporting any of it. The best evidence is that the hamburger sandwich originated in the early 1890s most likely in Chicago simply because that was one of the major slaughterhouses and, you know, places. so it just seems to me that that most likely was the evidence.
SMITHThe first primary source of it, actually it's "Los Angeles Times" 1894 so and then very quickly there's evidence for it being all over the country. So there's not one place that appears to have started it but many places simultaneously.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us that's Andrew Smith. He's a food historian who has authored and edited numerous volumes including "Hamburger: A Global History" which is part of the edible series. He also teaches food studies at the New School in New York City.
NNAMDIMark Bucher is also with us. he is founder and co-owner of BGR, The Burger Joint and owner of Medium Rare. And Tim Carman is a James Beard award-winning food writer who works for "The Washington Post" where he writes the "$20.00 Diner" feature. Call us at 800-433-8850. How do you like your burger?
NNAMDIShare your favorite toppings with us. If you have questions on the best ways to prepare patties at home we've got answers, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDITim Carman, it seems that almost everywhere you go from fast food joints to high end steakhouses you will find a burger on the menu. Should we think about them on a sort of spectrum with fast food on one end and fine dining options on the other?
CARMANCompletely, I mean they are different burgers with different types of cuts of beef likely in each one and they're often prepared differently. I mean, Mark can, I'm sure, can talk a lot about the preparation but from, you know, a high end steakhouse type burger you're dealing with a chef that probably puts a lot of thought into the blend.
CARMANIt may use like brisket, it may use top round, it may use short ribs. All of which is going to affect the flavor of the hamburger and then they would probably have different sort of spices in it, you know, seasonings in the meat.
CARMANAnd they will cook it to temperature meaning they will cook it to whatever you want it, rare, medium rare, well done as opposed to like Five Guys. And I love a Five Guys burger but it's a griddle burger and it's very small. It's usually like two and a half, three ounces.
CARMANAnd, you know, they, the theory is you don't, you know, I don't know if I can say this on the radio but you're not supposed to touch your meat when you're talking about a griddle burger.
NNAMDII'm not laughing.
CARMANAnd this is the idea, you want it to kind of sit in the fat and kind of create crisp edges and, but it's not cooked to order. It's not cooked to a certain temperature. You get it the same way every time.
CARMANAnd who knows what kind of blend is put into a Five Guys burger. It's still delicious but it has to be cooked right just like a steakhouse burger.
NNAMDIOver the course of your "$20 Diner" series for The Post have you found that you have to resist the urge to order the burger at the places you profile?
CARMANOf course, I mean, I love hamburger. I mean, it is like, I don't know, there's something almost primal about a good hamburger. Like Mark was talking about that smell and there was a very interesting story in "The Post" yesterday, not to plug our paper, but it was talking about this sort of scientific evidence of why people like hamburgers and it's, you know, really get into the fat, you know, the flavor of fat.
CARMANUmami, there's a lot of umami that's sort of, you know, a fifth flavor. And, you know, there's the smell. They talked about hundreds of chemical compounds that go into what attracts us to a hamburger and I think it's really sort of undeniable.
NNAMDIWell, Mark, I've seen BGR described a number of ways, "fast gourmet better burger." How do you describe the experience and the product?
BUCHERWell, you know, its interesting burgers have gotten significantly and substantially better over the last 10 years and I think it's become leaps and bounds better. Where we were inundated with fast food burgers and chef created burgers and then there became this middle section and I think Five Guys gets a lot of the credit first for kind of filling in that middle section of a better burger than you can get a fast food drive through place.
BUCHERAnd when Five Guys hit there were a lot of burger places BGR being one that started doing a, what I would think is a, and it's subject to personal opinion, a good job or better job with the burger. Some griddle, some grill where you can get a cook to order temperature.
BUCHERSome of these prime, dry age beef. The quality of ingredients got better, the preparation methods got better, the price got a little more expensive as a result of the ingredients getting better and the experience got better.
BUCHERWhere it wasn't grab it, unwrap it while you're driving a car, where it was it the ultimate portable food. I mean, you know, the burger explosion really starting, you know, milkshakes came first to McDonald's and then he put burgers in people's hands when they were moving milkshakes.
BUCHERSo it became the ultimate portable experience to now it became a dining experience. so you have this middle of the road great gourmet burger places out there and we all have a little bit of a different spin on it. BGR does the prime dry aged beef bit in a bunch of different varieties of burgers.
BUCHERYou've got Shake Shack out there doing a roadside burger which is a, like Tim said, you've got different burger sizes and formulizations based on what part of the country you're in.
BUCHERSo when I was out there figuring out where BGR was going to fit in terms of the burger landscape, we go up to New York where it's the land of smaller burger, smaller bun, you know, two, three ounce patty, smaller potato bun or white bread based bun, no seeds.
BUCHERAnd then you go to out west to Chicago, bigger patties, six, seven, eight ounce patty, seeded bun and you figure out well, you know, am I going to be a smaller burger, griddle, grill, bigger, there's so much variation.
NNAMDIYou started out at 10 ounces.
BUCHERWe did. The original recipe that we concocted in my kitchen was 10 ounces and we got talked out of it because it would take too long to cook. We had people just piled up, I wasn't smart enough to figure out how to cook for that many people waiting in line so we actually brought the size down a little bit.
BUCHERBut the cuts and, you know, Danielle Balute (sp?) in New York really was the first one to do that $40 burger. Do you remember that, what kind of news that made probably 10 years ago? The foie gras stuffed, short rib stuffed $40, people went bananas. It was like national news.
BUCHERThe president was wounded today but first we're going to Las Vegas to look at this burger and that's when we knew we were in the beginning of a burger craze.
NNAMDIOnto to the telephones now. We will start with Barbara in Potomac, Md. Barbara, you're on the air, go ahead please.
BARBARAYes, hi Kojo. I just wanted to share a memory. When we were kids growing up in New Jersey, in northern Jersey, it was right near Sparta called Lake Iliff. And we would go swimming in this lake and then get in our rowboat and row across this lake. And when we got across there was just a little restaurant -- this was in the late '50s -- that sold burgers. And they were the first burgers I remember. They were just on white bread with mayonnaise and the burger and some tomato and that was it. And I never forgot that memory. And ever since then I'm searching for that taste. So I just wanted to share that.
NNAMDIWell, you're doing the same thing that it would appear a whole lot of other people do. They remember the first memory of the burger and they spend the rest of their lives -- in the case of March Bucher their careers -- chasing that flavor down. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. But if you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. Would you like to share your tips and tricks for homemade burgers? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation on hamburgers with Mark Bucher, founder and co-owner of BGR The Burger Joint and owner of Medium Rare. Andrew Smith is a food historian. He has authored and edited numerous volumes, including "Hamburger: A Global History." That's part of "The Edible Series." And Tim Carman is a James Beard-award-winning food writer. He works for the Washington Post where he writes the $20 Diner feature.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Andrew, the story of the burger in America and the spread of our brand of burgers to nearly all corners of the globe is one that in many ways transcends food. How have burgers changed the way we do business?
SMITHWell, I think hamburgers have, in many ways, been the most significant impact on food in the world today. And I teach the trend so I'm well aware of lots of other trends that are out there. But it has tremendously influenced the way people eat. Not just in America but in the fast food business and a whole series of other ways, with chicken and with pizza and with tacos now, etcetera. It is a way that has appealed to large numbers of people in other countries. So I think it's been a major influence on what people eat around the world.
NNAMDIMcDonald's of course being the largest restaurant business on the entire planet, and that's obviously affected the way a lot of people have been doing business all over the world, right, Andrew?
SMITHIt's a great model. I mean, you've got an assembly line there. It is -- you've got interchangeable people. You don't need a chef. You just need somebody to flip the burger and you have a very relatively simple system. What is surprising to me is that how the hamburger has been able to go from an American origin to other countries. And they've done it by revising the ingredients that go into hamburgers. And so you have very different types of hamburgers served in other countries.
SMITHSo I found out a surprising part when I started cataloging all of the different hamburger chains that exist around the world now. Not just American hamburger chains but other hamburger chains as well and the types of hamburgers that American chains like McDonald's and Burger King serve in other countries.
NNAMDIHere's Lisa in Charlestown, W.V. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAYeah, hi. I just wanted to commend these guys. BGR, the first property of yours I went into was the one at Cascades in Sterling, Va., which is a renovated gas station. I just thought, what have they done with this? And then I went in and the food was beyond. The sweet potato fries are the best anywhere. And it is -- you guys have just done such a great job. And everybody else's burgers pale in comparison. And it's a great product. It's specific to our area, I think. I've never had a better burger anywhere else. It's just great.
NNAMDIWant to say anything to Lisa, Mark?
BUCHERWell, thanks. Just made my day. Well, thanks, Lisa. We work hard at that every day.
NNAMDILisa, thank you very much for your call. Tim , this region is home to several popular chains that have gone nationwide, including Five Guys and a number of upstarts from near and far who are testing the waters here. Is Washington, D.C. unique on the burger front or do we just like to think so?
CARMANIt's a good question. And, you know, I have been pondering why D.C. seems to be the launching pad for hamburger chains. I mean, we've got Elevation Burger, we have BGR, we've got Five Guys, we've got -- what's the one that just recently started around -- Z Burger, that's what I'm trying to think of. So, you know, all of these are -- have become -- have grown in one way or another in the last few years. And I don't know if it's like an outgrowth of D.C. being kind of a steakhouse town.
CARMANYou know, we've always been sort of about beef, you know. And there's something about beef -- and I think part of it may be because we are such a transient city. And we kind of have to appeal to tastes that go all over the country. These are some of the thoughts that I've had. I mean, none of them may be legitimate but, you know, obviously we've got to appeal to people from New York to Iowa to -- you know, to Oregon. And a hamburger typically does that.
NNAMDIWhat's your thinking about it, Mark?
BUCHERIt always has been a meat and potatoes town. I mean, steak and potatoes have been the backbone of D.C. -- the D.C. culinary world, you know, up until probably the mid '80s when we started turning the corner with other restaurants. You know, it's interesting, you know, New York I think was probably the first gourmet burger platform in the country where they had higher end restaurants doing better burgers. D.C., we had some really good competition here early on.
BUCHERI -- we had Five Guys -- obviously started Five Guys went fast quick. They sold out the country with their franchises in a year or two. So that raised everyone's eyebrows. So when that happens, you've got lots of people that know how to cook burgers well. And, you know, now they're working on grills and they're now out in the workforce. And they spread out and they go work at other restaurants and they breed better burgers. So, you know, similar to like when California pizza kitchens making pizzas, now you get better pizzas in a region because their people know how to make better pizzas.
BUCHERSo I think D.C. benefitted from Five Guys' rapid growth because it certainly happened here in the region first. So we had better guys that could work grills. We certainly have a lot of guys that cook steak to temperature on grills that lent itself to cooking burgers to temperature on grills. So that made it a little easier. We also got younger. You know, with the Clinton Administration, the Obama Administration, our demographics shifted younger. Burgers got cool. They got fashionable. And I think that helped as well.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Andrew, in the relatively short time since your history of burgers published in 2008, a lot has changed. What's your take on the changing burger landscape, both here in the U.S. and abroad?
SMITHWell, the first -- I mean, the first thing is the burgers have gone from a fast food phenomena to gourmet status. And today there's a $5,000 burger at the Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas. So we're not talking $40 burgers anymore. Now that does come with a certificate. I don't know why anyone would want to put it up on their wall, but it does come with a certificate saying you ate a $5,000 burger.
SMITHSo I think it's a tradition moving from a comfort food for most of us that we grew up with in the '50s and the '60s to something that most of us can afford to buy something more than a McDonald's hamburger. So getting something that's creative and new and different and ideally better for you, I think those are some of the characteristics that have changed in the United States.
NNAMDIOnto a discussion about buns. We will start with Rebecca in Washington, D.C. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAYes. I just wanted to say I love burgers and I probably have eaten at every place that you mentioned in my years before I moved to Baltimore. I'm now a Baltimore resident and I come back to D.C. for my burger. But one of the missing links for me is the type of bread. I am very much into darker breads, pumpernickel and multigrain breads. And the white bread is a true turnoff. And so whenever I'm looking for a hamburger, I'm inclined to get my meat from Whole Foods, go home and get my different kind of bread that I like and make my own burger, just because I'm not interested -- I'm interested in bread but I'm not interested in white bread.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Before we allow our panelists to join it, let me go to Damane (sp?) in Sterling, Va. Damane, your turn.
DAMANEHi. My name is Damane. I own Baguette Republic. And we start, you know, the brioche buns, you know, like a couple years ago and was not known in the city. And now we are into, you know, flat top, all kind of buns. And the buns are very important for the burger. And the brioche buns is particularly, you know, something -- you know, if you serve a higher -- you know, I thought you should mention the buns.
NNAMDIWell, I think that Mark Bucher has some experience in bread. How important is the bun?
BUCHERWell, he makes great -- how are you? Thanks for calling in. He makes great buns. I'm a brioche fan myself. I think the bun is as important as what's inside of it. You know, there's the all important Mr. Carman, the burger/bun ratio...
BUCHER...which is very scientific. Because if either one's out of whack it all -- it doesn't work. And a lot of great burgers fall short when the bun is three times the size of the patty, or vice versa when it falls apart in your hand. So the ratio's very important. You know, the synapse that goes off in your brain when you bite into -- you take that first bite of a burger, there's this thing called the first bite that I'm always focused on. It's that first bite of that soft bun where you get the toasted underside with a little bit of butter and you get that first bite of the burger inside of it. And it's just bliss.
BUCHERAnd that brioche bun brings you that buttery nutty flavor with the meat that's cooked with a little bit of the charred edge on it. And you get a little bit of the salt, a little bit of the butter and it's just heaven. To me that's perfection.
NNAMDIThe bun ratio has to be important. If you have to unhinge your jaw to take a bite, something's wrong, huh, Tim Carman?
CARMANYeah, absolutely. And, I mean, I couldn't agree more. It's like the bun -- I think the bun often gets overlooked, not only the ratio, but the flavors. And it's as important as the bread in a sandwich. It's like it's not just the filling. You have to have something that's flavorful. I mean -- and it's interesting like you usually have a potato bun with the smaller griddle burgers. And I love a potato bun, like a good Martin's potato bun. The brioche I think works great for the higher-end steakhouse type burgers.
CARMANAnd I don't know why anyone would use white bread because I just can't imagine it working on any level. It would absorb all the juices, it would fall apart, it would be terrible. You need more substance with a bun.
SMITHSo what's all this interest now in the pretzel burgers that are out there?
NNAMDIGood question. Mark, what's with the pretzel burgers?
BUCHEREverything's going pretzel. Everything's pretzel. You can get pretzel breakfast sandwiches, pretzel -- there's actually a blog now. You can go click on it and see what's on pretzel bread now, some marketing gimmick. I don't -- it doesn't do it for me.
NNAMDISo it would -- Damane, thank you very much for your call. On now to Rose in Washington, D.C. Rose, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROSEThank you. Thank you very much. I love my hamburgers. And I was eating them all over town but about ten years ago Matchbox Chinatown opened up their place. And now I make sure that at least once a month I'm up there having a bistro burger. I don't know if you know about a bistro burger but it's -- they're at Matchbox Chinatown and it is wonderful. It's just superb. The roll is great . The ingredients are fantastic. The -- it has onions with it that are just fantastic.
NNAMDIBut Rose, you're way beneath the national average, which is three a week. You're doing one a month?
ROSEI do now because I'm trying to keep my weight down. But once a month, I get up there and I really enjoy my burger.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Trying to -- speaking of keeping her weight down, Tim Carman, not everyone eats meat. And even those who do have become more aware of and concerned about the source of their food and possible health risks. What do you make of the sort of conflicted feelings that we have when it comes to eating beef in general and burgers in particular?
CARMANIt makes sense to me. I mean, you know, you don't need me to tell you or your listeners, like, all the issues around beef eating. I mean, it like contaminates local rivers and creeks and bigger bodies of water. And it leads to large greenhouse gases. It's -- there are many reasons for people to eat less meat. And yet...
CARMAN...the allure is there. You know, maybe I should only speak for myself. Maybe I'm just too weak-willed to ever want to give it up. But there is something about it and certainly I can always use my job as justification.
NNAMDIYes. Well, just last week a burger was taste tested not in a restaurant, but in a lab.
NNAMDIDo you think, Andrew, that science will ever be able to manufacture meat that faithfully imitates the real thing?
SMITHWell, those who claim that they did this said it's going to be commercially available in approximately ten, fifteen years. So maybe beef can be created in the test tube. But the problem of course is that it had no fat in it. What's a hamburger without fat?
NNAMDIWell, you know, last year in March we spoke with Mark Post, the Dutch scientist behind the in-vitro burger. And when the question of taste and whether vegetarians would eat lab-made meat came up, this is what he had to say.
MR. MARK POSTIf you can make meat substitutes that are indistinguishable from meat and you can make them from vegetable proteins alone, there's no way you can beat that with an in-vitro meat type of approach. So if we can come up with meat substitutes that are exactly the same that are indistinguishable and made from vegetable proteins, that would be preferable over any other way of producing meat. I totally agree.
MR. MARK POSTHowever, I don't see that happening in the near or even far future. And that's why we are taking this approach. But, you know, maybe I'm wrong. And then I'm also happy because then we found another way to solve the problem of the scarcity of meat in the future.
NNAMDIThat was, as I said, Mark Post, the Dutch scientist behind the in-vitro burger on the question of taste. Mark, BGR has a great variety of options on its menu. Why did you decide to offer up veggie, lamb, turkey, tuna in addition to the classic beef burger?
BUCHERWell, you know, I wanted to have something for everybody. I knew that, you know, guys are the three-time-a-week burger eaters. It's unbelievable. Tim and I both took huge gulps. I mean, jeepers.
NNAMDIWhen you saw that statistic, yes.
CARMANIf we're not the average than...
BUCHEROh, my gosh.
CARMAN...there's somebody out there eating a lot of burgers every week.
BUCHERYou know, god bless. I wanted something for everyone. And believe it or not, the funny irony here is my wife's a vegetarian. You know, her husband's in the meat business and my wife's a vegetarian. And so having a veggie burger was a nonnegotiable. And, you know, having a darn good one was a nonnegotiable. So that took months to figure out. But wanted to do something that was -- you know, you can only just alternative options.
BUCHERAnd I wanted to have things that honestly the Five Guys didn't have because at that time I was providing an alternative to Five Guys. So we did lamb and we did tuna. And I went away from -- I let them own the hot dog and I didn't want to do a chicken sandwich. That was a chicken joint. And I didn't want to do, you know, other items. That was another joint. At that point when we started it was just focused on doing what we do well and leaving that alone. it's very -- I just wanted to be different. And we did milk shakes because Five Guys didn't do milk shakes. And we had beer and wine because Five Guys didn't have beer and wine. We just wanted something to go right after them and give people an alternative.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. We go now to Mark in Herndon, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi. I just wanted to comment that in terms of burgers, I think one of the most important aspects is what it's cooked over. And I actually -- when I do my own burgers I have lump charcoal that I have from my brother up in Redding, Pa. And cooking over charcoal gives burgers a unique flavor that really can't be matched out of, like, gas grills or griddles. And I think the caramelization of the meat, the slight smoky flavor from a natural lump charcoal adds a depth to hamburgers that you really can't beat in any other way.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Tim Carman?
BUCHERHe's related to you.
CARMANYeah. No, I agree. I love hamburger over charcoal or wood. It does give it a smoky flavor, but, you know, I think there have been people that have come close to approximating that flavor using gas, and I know Mark and I have had the discussion years ago about his approach to try to give that sort of outdoor grill flavor to a burger with just a gas flame. Because you use volcanic rocks?
BUCHERWe do, that's right.
CARMANWhich I think gives some of that sort of flavor. But, you know, it -- no, because I love your burgers, but it still doesn't quite match the flavor of a burger over, you know, a flame grill with wood.
BUCHERWell you know, got to add the lighter fluid into it and the newspaper into it, and you just don't have all that inside a restaurant.
CARMANWell, that lighter fluid, it definitely makes the burger.
BUCHERYou know, the lighter fluid adds a little bit to it. But, you know, we get as close as we can with the conditions we have.
SMITHWell, for me, on the other hand, I don't like it over a grill, and the main reason is the fat and juices of the meat drop into the charcoal and you lose them. To me, I much prefer one over a nice grill -- a nice solid skillet for something like that to me is much better tasting. If you can add the -- I do love the taste and flavor or chargrilled, but if you can add that in, that's all the better.
BUCHERHe likes that salty -- you like that salty crust on the bottom.
SMITHI like that salty crust on the bottom, and...
BUCHERYeah. Nice texture.
SMITH...and it doesn't bother me at all, and I love the juicy inside. And when your juice drops in the flames and you're sitting there saying that's not -- that's not great.
NNAMDIThank you very much for...
CARMANThat's why you cook it medium rare.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mark.
CARMANSear it -- sear it over the hot side of the grill and then move it over.
SMITHLet's argue about this.
BUCHERWhat's your cheese of choice?
BUCHERWhat's your cheese of choice?
SMITHOh. I like processed American.
BUCHERHey. That's three for three.
SMITHIf you're gonna do it right, you know, you're not gonna put any of those foreign cheeses coming onto an American burger.
NNAMDIThis is making me too hungry. I gotta take a break. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on burgers. If you've called, stay on the line. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. If you are a vegetarian, what's your favorite type of veggie burger? Matt tweets, "My favorite is BGR's veggie burger." Call us. Is yours bought or homemade? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Tim Carman. He's a James Beard Award-winning food writer who works for the Washington Post where he writes the $20 Diner feature. We're talking hamburgers with Mark Bucher, founder and co-owner of BGR The Burger Joint, and owner of Medium Rare. And Andrew F. Smith is a food historian who has authored and edited numerous volumes, including "Hamburger: A Global History." It's part of "The Edible Series." Andrew also teaches food studies at the New School in New York.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Frank in Pittsburgh, Andrew, who says, "We may have invented the burger, but the best burger I ever had was in Australia. They serve a burger with the lot. It's a meal on a bun." But here's for you, Andrew. Two other emails having to do with the invention, so to speak, of the hamburger. "The parents of a close" -- this is from Beth, an email. "The parents of a close childhood friend were from Germany, and her mother always made the Hamburg Hamburger. She would lecture me a German account about how this was the real hamburger, but it was so overdosed in butter that I could barely stand it. What's the story behind that?"
NNAMDIAnd Elizabeth tweets, "Do any of your guests know how the hamburger got its name? It's not made with ham." And Todd emailed asking the same question. "So where does hamburger come from?" Your turn, Andrew.
SMITHWell, it is a German introduction in the United States, Hamburg steak. Hamburg, Germany had a huge dairy industry, and they were well known for the types of beef that they produce. So they had this real positive name. It is German immigrants that come into the United States that begin to sell Hamburg steak in restaurants, and the earliest record I found of that was 1872 in New York with the German community here.
SMITHAnd very quickly it spread to Philadelphia, and from Philadelphia it was one the more important items sold in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. And there -- and Hamburg steak spread throughout the United States. But if you want to put a bun on it, then, the earliest evidence for that is the early 1890s, and that's a street vendor food, and the steak is -- the idea is you can't sell a hamburger with -- if you're a street vendor with a knife and a fork. You've got to put it around something, so they just put it around a bun, and therein lies the invention of.
SMITHBut the name itself does refer to Hamburg, Germany, and it is a German introduction. The Hamburg sandwich is an American invention.
NNAMDIA lot of food vendors here in Washington D.C. these days, Tim Carman. Do a lot of them do hamburgers at all?
CARMANLike the street food?
NNAMDIThe food trucks around the city. Yeah.
CARMANSome do, you know. And there is -- kind of like we were talking about, there are variations. I mean, you can find a classic American griddle burger out of a truck, but there's also like a Peruvian burger, which has kind of a spicy Peruvian pepper aioli on it, and it's pretty tasty. So you can find some.
NNAMDII was looking for a tweet here that talked about one of those burgers, but in the meantime while I look for that one, Mark, you have what I understand is a closely guarded mix of aged beef that you use for your burgers. What can you tell us about it?
NNAMDIThat's how closely guarded it is?
BUCHERYou know, I -- here's the thing. You could put a bunch of ground beef together and go to the supermarket and make a burger and it's perfectly fine. And like Tim said, that's was 99.9 percent of Americans grow up with, and it's the taste we get accustomed to, cooking it in your backyard. When you go to a restaurant and you pay for an item, I felt that I had to chef it up and create something that was more of an experience than something someone could make themselves or in their backyard.
BUCHERSo I became an absolute student of beef, an absolute student of beef cuts and what they tasted like, and what they tasted like when they were aged, and worked very closely with meat and beef guys -- it's funny, from Chicago actually, that helped me figure out the aging process and how long different parts age for, and worked with some local vendors here and two brothers in Hyattsville were just a Godsend to us in the early days that helped us really figure out how this works and comes together.
BUCHERAnd we decided to dry age beef, because dry-aged beef gives it that leathery, marrowy, flavor that you just can't get at home. You know, it just enhances flavor and it just gave a burger -- it was a different experience then you get...
NNAMDIWell, what do you recommend for -- I'm sorry, Tim. Go ahead.
CARMANNo. I have a question for Mark. So how does a chain -- how does a burger chain keep a consistent blend over all the different outlets? I mean, if you were going to have a burger that you want consistent, which is like the hallmark of a chain, how do you ensure that you get the same percentages of each cut, that they're dried a certain amount, that you have the right amount of fat? This is a question that I've put to a number of different, like, chain owners.
BUCHERYou never got a straight answer?
CARMANWell, most of them will say it is consistent...
CARMAN...but I have to say, Adam Fleischman, the Umami Burger founder, told me straight up that it's not, and it never will be.
BUCHERIt's impossible. It's impossible. It never will be because things change. Kojo, in answer to your question too, in the course of a year, things change. Feed changes and cattle changes, and when it gets cold their feed changes, and beef tastes different. In the wintertime it tastes different than in the summertime based on feed, and fat content in beef. So you have to alter your blend to keep it tasting the same by using different muscles or different parts. Sorry to use a graphic term, but it has to change a little bit to get it to taste the same.
BUCHERSo you have to carefully monitor what's happening. And the only way to do that is by taste. There's no other scientific way to do it other than taste. And, you know, there's a big movement on whether it's grass fed or whether it's grain fed or corn fed, and all that kind of stuff. The reality is you gotta taste it and you gotta alter it and it's -- that's the only way to really do it.
CARMANI can see new trend, seasonal beef patties.
BUCHERSeasonal beef patties, exactly.
NNAMDII got an email from Mark who said, "I recently had a burger made from grass-fed beef. It was a revelation. I haven't had that taste in over 35 years. Other beef is so bland by comparison." Mark, what do you recommend people look for at the grocery store when preparing their own burgers at home?
BUCHERWell, my advice to everybody is to go by a brisket and have them grind it for you twice. Go buy a brisket and ask them to put it through the coarse side of the grinder twice, and give it to you as ground beef. Make it for a burger and use the rest for meatloaf or freeze it, and I think that will give you a very high quality burger with the right fat content for the home.
CARMANThe point or the flat part...
NNAMDITina emails from Fall Church, "Our homemade burgers are the best. My husband is a retired meat cutter. We buy a chuck roast and have it ground twice and cook it that night. We make a chunky patty." I interrupted you, Tim. Go ahead, please.
CARMANOh, no. I was just asking Mark, you know, the brisket...
BUCHERThe point or the flat?
CARMANYeah. The point or the flat because one is very fatty and one is not.
BUCHERAll of it.
CARMANAll of it. Got it.
BUCHERMr. barbecue guy. All -- the whole thing. Put it in.
NNAMDIAndrew, we discussed buns, but for some, what comes on the side is an even bigger draw than the burger itself. How did French fries become the go-to partner for burgers?
SMITHIt really isn't until the 1950s that that happens. And part of the problem was how do you make French fries on a mass scale without having an explosion in your restaurant? They tried to do French fries in the 1930s and they had fires and other things, and they didn't have the right equipment. When World War II came along, they began experimenting with French fries because they didn't have the beef that they would have had historically.
SMITHAnd so consequently they at least solved some of the technical problems, but it really isn't until the 1950s when you had the technology there that could make French fries a relatively low-cost item that can go right along with hamburgers that you had the wedding between those two.
NNAMDIHere's is Mike in Silver Spring, Md. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHi, Kojo. Boy I didn't realize how deeply this is in my past. I think I grew -- I grew up around the corner from what might have been one of the first Burger Kings, on the corner University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road. and from then on it's been downhill. But I wanted to mention the Yamas burger over in Bethesda, and also have you guys talk about the idea of putting stuff inside of burger instead of on top of it, and how that, you know, various ethnic versions of onion in the burger and mint I like to put inside the burger. Things like that. What do you think?
NNAMDIWell, I know Yamas has a Greek version of burger you wanted to talk about, and BGR has a great burger too. What do you think?
BUCHERWell, putting things inside burgers has been blooming and blossoming over the years. At the world burger championships last year...
NNAMDIWhere you can in?
NNAMDIAnd your participating again?
NNAMDIThere we go.
BUCHERNovember 7th in Las Vegas. I got to go defend that. What put me over the top last year, the big thing was everyone was putting eggs on top of burgers. I actually put it inside the burger, which was quite unique, which we actually poached it and put it inside the burgers, and when they bit into the burger there was a little surprise waiting inside for them. You like that, Tim?
CARMANI do. It's kind of like the egg version of the Juicy Lucy.
BUCHERThat's exactly right. And so things inside burgers are fun. I've had dinner parties at the house where we've set up, you know, like a burger bar and had, you know, mozzarella cheese and chili paste, chili sauce, and onions, and pesto, and we had people stuff their own burgers and we'd grill them and then they make their own burgers. That would be a great little dinner party idea. It's fun to do. You got to be careful because you've got to cook those ingredients to a certain temperature to make sure you're healthy. So it does create a little bit of a hazard if you don't know what you're doing.
NNAMDIAndrew, what can you tell us about the history of the Juicy Lucy?
SMITHI don't know. What's a Juicy Lucy?
NNAMDII don't know. I thought you might have known something about the history of it.
BUCHERI believe it started in like Minnesota. It's a hamburger that it stuffed with cheese, so when you bite into it, it kind of oozes out this rich cheese.
CARMANRight. The hot -- it started off being stuffed with cheddar cheese and you bite into it and the hot choose would ebb out like volcanic, you know, just lava onto you. And then there was another version of it where they actually would melt the cheese on top of it, where it could come -- you'd have the burger and then you'd have like nine inches of melted cheese on both sides of the burger like a flap that would come out too. So there's the inside version of it, and then out by Syracuse they've got the outside version of it. So there's two different versions of.
NNAMDIHere is Matt in Washington D.C. Matt, thank you for waiting. You're on the air now. Go ahead, please.
MATTHey, how y'all doing?
NNAMDIWe're doing well.
MATTTwo quick recipes. One, I'm a big hunter, so I eat a lot of venison, and I mix 80/20 with venison, like a 50/50 blend. Great burger. Highly recommend it.
MATTThe other one -- yeah. Well, mix it with 80/20 hamburger and venison.
MATTI actually do a pound of each. And charcoal, of course. And the other one is, I take hamburger and rough cut potatoes, carrots, and onions and wrap it all up in tin foil like a Hershey kiss and throw it in the grill and get everything melting together nicely. So I just wanted share those two quick -- you gotta mix it up a little bit.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Mark, what -- before we go, because we're running out of time, what is your go-to burger order or specialty?
BUCHERMy go-to -- when I go eat a burger what do I get?
BUCHERI get a burger, medium, American cheese, and I put ketchup on it.
NNAMDIHow about you, Andrew?
SMITHI like it just straight in a nice, small bun, a nice patty in the middle of it, nothing else. Just straight.
NNAMDIHow about you, Tim?
CARMANI like mine medium rare with some charred red onions, American cheese, and a little bit of ketchup.
NNAMDIHere is John in Washington D.C. What do you like, John?
JOHNWell, my favorite burger is a duck bacon burger. It's actually ground duck and ground bacon. Just like the last caller, like an 80/20 or 70/30 mix.
NNAMDIAnd where do get that, John?
JOHNWell, they have the burger for sale at this place in Bethesda called the Majestic Bar and Grill.
NNAMDIFamiliar with it.
JOHNYeah. It seems as though there's a little bit of controversy whether the restaurant is still open, so maybe it might be a burger your BGR guy might...
NNAMDIThe restaurant may be open, but we are just about closed for business right now. We're just about out of time. Thank you very much for your call.
BUCHERIf I can, Kojo, can I just mention some real quick?
BUCHERThe Post is going to put out a best burger in D.C. issue on August 23, and it's going to include something just as unusual as a duck and bacon burger. It's going to include -- the readers had a chance to vote their favorite parts of each burger. So we're going to compile that into one monster Frankenburger.
NNAMDIAnd I had to get this tweet from Raised Hindu. "I felt guilty eating hamburgers. I've made peace. Life is too short, and hamburgers too good." Thank you all for joining us. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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