What makes a perfect burger? The answer to this question is probably different for everyone. As a kid my perfect burger had American cheese and ketchup, nothing else. If a restaurant put pickles on the burger it was effectively ruined, even if they were pulled off, the juices had already sullied the meal. Nowadays, I love a potent cheese and a pile of toppings so tall that it’s hard to wrap my mouth around.
When I asked for ideas on what to make from the United States I got a resounding call for hamburgers. In so many ways it feels like a true all-american food. There are a lot of meals that we eat that we have Americanized such as the taco or pizza. While the hamburger does have origins in Germany, the meal as we know it today has USA written all over it. It seemed fitting to make this iconic American meal this Memorial Day as we honored those who lost their lives serving our country.
Colin had a cheeseburger three years ago on a family vacation. It wasn’t at a restaurant, it was made by my family on the back deck of a little cottage in Grand Haven, MI. He has talked about this particular burger every time we have eaten them since that day. There was something about it that made it exceptional to him. I have no recollection of this burger being anything out of the ordinary and he admits that if he has that same exact burger today, it might not be as good as it was then. There is something about food and the context in which we eat it that determines how we feel about it.
Maybe Colin was just really hungry and anything would have tasted good. Maybe the air temperature, the sunshine and a good beer in his hand made the meal. Maybe it was the carefree attitude of vacation. Or maybe it was the extra care that was given in crisping bacon, caramelizing onions, and slicing avocado. More likely it was some combination of all of the above. I dare say the setting, our hunger levels and the people gathered around our table have a significant impact on what we think of the meal.
There are a lot of ways to create a cheeseburger. The list of toppings could run a mile long. We are BBQ sauce people. Our pantry is always stocked with BBQ sauce, but ketchup? Kind of a gamble as to whether or not we’ll have it in the house. Our favorite burgers start with great beef. We buy ⅛ of a cow every year and we love having local and well-raised meat in our freezer all year long. It’s an added bonus that the farm we buy from happens to belong to my dad’s best man and college roommate. Supporting local businesses and friends: that’s the best combination. At the end of the grilling process we top the burger with Cabot sharp cheddar cheese and let it get all gooey and melty down the sides. For me, the most essential topping is caramelized onions. Something magical happens in a pan with just butter and onions. Let the onions cook on medium low the whole time you are preparing the burgers and I promise the smell in your home will be phenomenal, which most certainly adds to the ambiance and your enjoyment of the food.
In other years, Memorial Day has marked the start of summer. We open up the family cottage and host a slew of friends and family for boat rides and burgers. This year is different. There is no big party and no table full of food and friends. There is a sadness that is there as I look at the summer ahead and wonder what it will be like; but there is a sense of peace too. In some ways it is relaxing to realize that I have an entire summer ahead of me with no plans. In any normal year my calendar is packed by June 1st with picnics, playdates, vacations, barbeques, baseball games, and a whole slew of other things. Here in Michigan we know how fleeting summer is and we are maximizers. We will fill all of the days with fun adventures while the weather is nice. We’ll eat copious amounts of ice cream and let the kids stay up too late because all too soon fall will reappear. With no scheduled events, this summer has a whole new air of freedom and excitement. I think we’ll do things we wouldn’t have done. We’ll spend even more time outside, we’ll hike, we’ll eat a lot of food on our back deck, we’ll wake up to check the weather and decide what sounds like fun. We’ll make memories. We could linger in the sadness or we can let ourselves live into the simplicity of a summer with an empty calendar.