The perfect grilled hamburger doesn’t come from Vivian Howard’s Boiler Room restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, although I encourage you to stop by if you are ever in her neighborhood. Her burgers are awesome and delicious.
Mr. Friday flips an excellent burger on his fancy gas grill on the back porch, and in the soon-to-be-well-seasoned cast iron skillet in the kitchen. He serves them on trendy potato rolls, with perfect heirloom tomatoes and lots of gooey cheese. They are hot and delectable, and in the middle of this gelid winter, deeply satisfying.
My perfect grilled hamburger comes from my youth, from the hibachi in the back yard, on hot summer nights, with sparks spewing and bats flying overhead. The burgers were not juicy and perfectly formed. They were irregular spheroids – well-charred and carbonized briquets – flipped and squashed until all the precious juices were mangled out. Hamburgers cooked by my father were unforgettable.
My father died this week, unexpectedly, yet not unsurprisingly; he was 92, but still, we were shocked. He had suffered a fall, and survived a week of hospital care. Returning to my hometown has brought myriad memories bubbling to the surface. Friends have called and texted my brother and me, and after the effusion of sincere condolences, peoples’ real recollections come tumbling out. Some folks even remember these gritty, over-cooked hockey pucks with great fondness. Not quite the stuff of legends, because Dad did so much more in his life, but the cookouts were pleasant interludes; respites when everyone slowed down, and sat in the squeaky, webbed aluminum chairs, and watched the sun set and the stars come out. There were no deadlines, or lesson plans, or homework to worry about. The summer evenings spent cooking out were relaxed, and filled with conversations – none particularly memorable – but all were amiable and rambling.
We sat around the small fire, some of us poking it with sticks hoping for conflagrations, some sipping warming Ballentine Ale. We shelled peas, snapped beans, and trimmed radishes. We churned ice cream. We ate tomatoes, warm from the afternoon sunshine. We flipped baseballs. We watched as the fireflies started to flit about. We saw twinkling airplanes on their approaches to the New York airports. We heard about childhoods in Hamden and New Haven, the Yale bookstore and the Panama Canal. We listened to stories about the South Pacific during the war. We learned about street cars, and ice men making deliveries with their horse-drawn carts, and the one-and-only time playing hooky to see Frank Sinatra sing. We talked about Maine vacations and Civil War battlefields. Sometimes we had sparklers, and wrote our names with the glowing wire tips. Sometimes the hamburgers were forgotten and the night was rich with family and starlight. We are bereft, but for the memories.
But if you prefer convention, Bon Appétit can show you the way:
• Divide meat into 4 equal portions (about 6 oz. each). Place 1 portion on a work surface. Cup your hands around the meat and begin to gently shape it into a rounded mound. (Use light pressure as you shape so you don’t pack the meat too tightly.) Lightly press down on the top of the meat with your palm to gently flatten it. Continue rotating and cupping the meat, patting the top of it occasionally, until you’ve formed a 4″-diameter, 3/4″-thick patty. Using your thumb, make a small indentation in the center to help keep the burger flat as it cooks. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with remaining portions.
• Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to high. Season one side of patties with salt and pepper; place on grill, seasoned side down. Grill until lightly charred on bottom, about 4 minutes. Season other side, turn, and top with cheese. Grill to desired doneness, about 4 minutes longer for medium. Transfer burgers to buns and let stand for 3 minutes before serving.
HARD-PRESSED NO MORE
•Spatulas were made for flipping, not pressing on the patty. Hear that hissing sound when you do? That’s all the flavorful juices dripping on the coals—they belong in the burger.
“Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow