July 9, 2007

For Whom my Burger Tolls

Enrique says that I make the best hamburgers in Spain. “Poor man”, I think, shaking my head. If only he’d had the privilege of growing up with a backyard deck and a father who grills just about everything with a hint of Chipotle smoke. Now, THAT’s a good burger. But alas, he’s a city boy, a Madrileño born and bred in the capital city of Spain, and yes, I will concede with a sigh, my burgers are probably the best ones here. I should mention that there is a fancy restaurant here that makes even fancier burgers out of Kobe beef, but what do they know? Unless you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you just can’t understand what makes a burger tick. I consider myself a Cook, not a Chef mind you because I’ve never studied, never worn checkered pants, and my knife collection is an odd mishmash of what I’ve been able to steal from my parents and smuggle in my suitcase, mixed together with a 10 dollar set of IKEA knives bought 8 years ago that still work like a dream. I did however have my own restaurant in Madrid for several years, and I was in fact the Cook, so monogrammed jacket or no, I do own a pair of kitchen clogs. Additionally, I have been in Spain for 9 years and have endured the running commentary by Europeans about American food. My restaurant, although my American partner and I never advertised it as American food, was plagued by the irritating question, “what’s American food?, hamburgers?”. My new friendships were marred by comments like “you Americans don’t have a cuisine of your own, except maybe hamburgers”, and my wallet was consistently lightened by my constant dinner parties – determined as I was to show the wealth and variety of “American” food. Imagine the struggle, the exhaustion, the dishes washed without a dishwasher, until something happened last summer ago that turned by world on end.

Four years before that, during the first summer that my restaurant was open, a lot of expectations were placed on the United States World Cup soccer team. They were good, they were playing well, and they were actually holding their own in the incredibly talented and competitive World Cup tournament that was taking place that year in South Korea. My parents were in town from Michigan and for a week we actually carried the prep cooking from the restaurant to my nearby apartment and prepared it in the kitchen there; Dad skewering chicken, Mom rolling spring rolls, and me whipping up some tuna marinade (all in strict adherence to health codes of course), the three of us glued to my television – watching the U.S. beat first one team and then another. When they had made it further than any US team ever had before, we were dismayed to realize that the biggest game of all, between the USA and Germany, was scheduled right in the middle of the restaurant’s weekday lunch rush. Luckily, my dad, who has a PhD, came up with the brilliant idea of carrying my microwave sized television down to the restaurant (as opposed to lugging 75 Tupperware and a cooler four blocks back and forth and up three flights of stairs). We went as far as to plan two special lunch menus around the event: the American one consisting of coleslaw and barbecued short ribs, and the German one of German potato salad and Wiener schnitzel. The restaurant was packed, expectations were high, and I remember that my then-new acquaintance Enrique sat at the table next to my parents. The USA lost, my German customers were unbearable, the television was lugged home, and we were forced to wait another four years for the USA to have another go at the World Cup.
Although fervent soccer fans might think that the world came to a halt for those four years, in truth, a great many things happened in the years that fell between those two tournaments. Enrique and I fell in love and eventually moved in together, he came to the States with me a few times and (a lover of spicy foods) tried his very first Jalapeño burger in a bistro type tavern in Boulder, Colorado. I watched his eyes grow big as the massive french fry laden plate was set in front of him, a tiny American flag waving proudly from between the sesame seeds on the top bun. He also tried his first Chili burger that summer on our road trip from Colorado to San Francisco. He was lucky with that first one, it was delicious oozing spicy homemade chili, but unlucky with the four or five canned chili burgers that he tried after that; starting with the unrecognizable and slightly grey chili blob that he ordered at a diner in Leadville, Colorado, America’s highest city, and continuing with the tepid chili burger experiment at a place called Mom’s somewhere in Utah. During those years I also closed my restaurant and studied to become a sommelier, and a couple of times I slapped together some burgers for lunch or dinner at Enrique’s request, never suspecting that all the while expert soccer playing men from the US of A were gearing up to surprise the world again in yet another well-played World Cup tournament, one that would change my culinary claim to fame.
Last summer was full of lazy – albeit economically challenged – days. I had just finished sommelier school and was delighted to pour my efforts into enjoying the World Cup for a week or so. I may lack the fervor that Europeans like Enrique feel for the event, it is their super bowl, their end all – be all, their moment to slip out of the European Union and return to the old “us against them” rivalry; but I did play soccer for almost 15 years and don’t mind getting catching a good game and getting caught up in the rivalry myself. With time and unemployment on our side we decided to watch as much as possible. When Spain played for the first time, Enrique and my mother-in-law and I dressed in the Spanish colors of yellow and red, ate Spanish jamon and drank Mahou beer, cheering loudly with the neighbors when the team scored. And when the States played for the first time, we stood up for the national anthem with a friend from New Mexico, drank Budweiser and said things like “hot-diggity” and “that was a doozie” (for some reason watching American sporting events always makes me revert to retro 1950’s lingo). Everything was going just dandy until the US was scheduled to play Italy and we decided to strike up a friendly culinary rivalry with an Italian friend who was coming over to watch the game. “I’m going to make something typically American” I said into the phone “and I was hoping that you would bring a typical Italian dish”. And it was at this moment that my world momentarily stopped. A pause, and then a snickering started coming across the phone lines, then giving way to full-on chortling, with arrogant guffaws coming from the evesdropping Portuguese husband in the background. I heard him gasping “what is she going to make that’s American, hamburgers? Americans don’t have cuisine, there’s no contest”. “I’m sorry”, she managed “but my husband thinks it’s funny that on top of thinking that you can beat the Italians in soccer, you are even daring to suggest that our gastronomy can be compared, let alone challenged, and by what, burgers???”. Sickeningly sweet, a hostess that my Southern grandmother would have been proud of, I hung up the phone, and swore that I would indeed make burgers that night, and that I would make them pay for those comments with the best burger that those pompous citizens of former Roman colonies had ever seen.
With Enrique’s American burger road trip and several calls to my father as my inspiration, I began to create not only the best tasting ground beef patty imaginable – a mixture of four different fresh herbs, garlic, chipotle flakes, different spices, special bread crumbs, organic Galician eggs – but also the most colorful and elaborate mélange of toppings to lay out on the table in the oh-so-American make it yourself tradition. A relatively new mother and independent businesswoman, my Italian friend had found the time to throw together a Napolitano style lasagna and for a second, glancing at my colorful table, I almost felt sorry for the Ital-Portuguese couple, unaware that their dismissive comments about American cuisine had released the beast within me. Sorry, that is, until I saw their new baby flaunting an Italian team uniform, and until they mentioned that they were so sure of victory both on the field and the dinner table that they hadn’t made much of an effort with the food at all.
Much to my dismay and their gloating delight, the US team tied the game and lost their place in the competition. But much to the horror of the Italians perhaps, the burgers stole the evening. The guests heaped their plates with the toppings: bacon, jalapeños, three kinds of cheeses, sautéed mushrooms, the standard lettuce and tomatoes, onions, four kinds of mustard, horseradish, and of course the savory herb and spice laden burgers; leaving the (oops, did I dry that out in the oven while reheating it for you?) lusterless lasagna on the bench. While the Italian team did go on to win the entire tournament, I felt like I had won the real tournament that night, taking a stand for American chefs everywhere, not by showing a savoir of creative and innovative gourmet delights, but by embracing the very thing that I have spent a lifetime denying as a symbol of all that is culinary: the burger.
While we may have to wait another four years to show our soccer savvy, the recipe for “Spain’s best burgers” follows:

ground beef
finely diced fresh herbs: cilantro, basil, mint, thyme, parsley
crushed garlic cloves
garlic salt or Jane’s Krazy mixed-up salt
oregano
Perrin’s sauce
Tabasco
Chipotle flakes
pepper
cayenne pepper
finely diced shallots (optional as I’m allergic)
whole wheat homemade dried and rough smashed bread crumbs

Mix ingredients together, form patties, fry or preferably grill, and enjoy, all the while doing your little superior dance.

6 comments:

barbas said...

Doy fe. Burgers at the top winning the gastronomic tournament.
But don't feel so entrusted, next time "tortilla de patatas" will play that game.

yustos said...

That's what i'm talking about!!!
I agree, yours are the best hamburgers here in norther africa, period.
As Laura Esquivel said in "As water for chocolate" (Free English translation) "...the secret ingredient, is love.".
Keep wrinting I really love it.

Anonymous said...

congratulations for your yummy blog!
it´s gonna be a pleasure read about
all your stuff & movidillas! un besazo enorme!

clavdio

Anonymous said...

Gastrochick,

Great blog - keep it up!! I'm going to forward it to friends and family for general entertainment and ongoing international awareness and education.

Besos,

Sophie

Saradona said...

I´ve had your burger and I must say it was the best! or should I say it was hip, groovy, neat and made me wanna do some backseat bingo daddy o!!
Thanks for giving me something to be proud of that is undeniably genius and delicious in equal parts.

the Spanish Veggihamarian said...

Yeah, todo esto está muy bien. Pero there is some people here who doesn't care that much about burgers y... they are anxious to know about a certain Chocolate con Chile Cake.

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