The Gallivanting Gourmand
Greg Duncan
Greg Duncan
is a freelance writer based in the Montreal region. He is particularly keen about good food. In his day job, Greg is the executive director of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 05.24.03


All burgers, all the time

Recently, I highlighted the ever-important aspects of hotdoggery and decided that it would not be fair to ignore the finer qualities of that other favorite all-American/Canadian sandwich, the hamburger.

If not for this staple of modern times, summer would be drab and the barbecue lonely. I simply can't imagine a festive family backyard feast without ground round. Of course, vegetarian readers will disagree, but even the alternative food product makers have figured out how to cash in on burgermania.

Full-fledged veggies can enjoy tofu and brown rice or lentil and cracked-wheat burgers. Heck, they can even top them with soy cheese and organic lettuce. What always seems to make the topping list, though, is ketchup. There is no bypassing this condiment it seems. Let's catch up on what seems to be the start of the hamburger.

Hamburger is clouded in history and controversy. In Medieval times, the Tartars -- a band or warriors from the plains of Central Asia -- would place pieces of beef under their saddles while they rode. This would tenderize the meat that would then be eaten raw.

In the 19th century, German immigrants brought a dish called Hamburg-style beef to the United States, which had traveled to the seaport city of Hamburg, Germany from Russia. This dish was a raw, chopped piece of beef and is believed to be the primitive ancestor of the modern hamburger.

Now several people who claim to be the descendents of the hamburger's inventor dispute what happened next. The popular story is that the first hamburger was served up at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. This sandwich was made with a cooked patty of ground beef on a hard roll. Of course, there are earlier references but this might very well be the first time a cooked patty hit the bun.

Mass distribution of the fast-food hamburger started in 1921. White Castle was such an immediate success that dozens of imitators jumped up and quickly failed. This tiny hamburger originally sold for five cents. Later, the telltale holes were added to the patty to speed up cooking times and eliminate the need for flipping.

In 1934, the Wimpy Burger appeared. Named for Popeye's hamburger-eating character, this burger went for the upscale market at 10 cents a burger. In keeping with the founder's wishes, all 1500 restaurants were closed down when he died in 1978.

The 1930s also saw the advent of the drive-in. Drive-ins changed the landscape of burgers forever by allowing diners to remain in their cars and therefore creating the concept of drive-up service that remains the mainstay of the fast food industry.

By the late 1930s, Bob Wain of Bob's Big Boy introduced the first double patty burger. Variety in hamburgers was beginning and like White Castle, the Big Boy found a lot of imitators. But it wasn't until 1948 when the first McDonald's opened that the modern fast-food hamburger was set to revolutionize the way we eat.

This first McDonald's didn't sell hamburgers though; it was a hot dog stand. Ray Kroc, who would create the McDonald's empire, started his restaurant in 1954. By then, hamburgers have had replaced the hot dog. The Big Mac was introduced in 1968.

If you doubt the importance of the hamburger on American and Canadian culture then consider this: North Americans on average eat three hamburgers a week.

And McDonald's alone has sold twelve hamburgers for every person in the world. Nearly seven per cent on the American workforce had their first job at McDonald's.

Hamburgers account for nearly 60 percent of all the sandwiches eaten. So next time you pick up a hamburger, remember it's not just a sandwich, it's an economy.

And don't forget the fries. French fries consume 7.5 percent of US potatoes. As good Canadians that follow our American friends' likes and dislikes, we often forget that we have a few goodies to contribute to the culinary landscape. In a future column I will prove that Canucks have food moxie. For the present, I'll provide a simple recipe for a hamburger that will impress.

Barbecued Brie and mushroom burgers

1 pound quality medium ground beef
1 tbsp. kosher salt
4 big seedy buns
4 wedges good soft Brie
1 pound mushrooms sliced and sautéed in garlic and butter with a pinch of black pepper
Mayonnaise for topping

Mix ground beef and kosher salt together and form four large patties. Spread mayonnaise on top slice of bun. Cook burgers on barbecue at medium heat until juices run clear when pricked with a knife. Top burgers with a soft Brie slice and 1/4 of the mushrooms.