Dispatches: The Persistence of the Hamburger

Much of the work of a new restaurant resides in coming up with new inflections of old dishes, or familiarizing anchors for new dishes, in order to produce the right combination of novelty and intelligibility.  Depending on its target clientele, a restaurant chooses what to serve within a determinate field: a restaurant serving people who consider themselves Modern and International can serve foams in the confidence that they will be understood as a nod to Spain’s Ferran Adria.  A East Village diner can serve vegan hot dogs just as confidently.  The price of a dish itself is a reassurance of various things: this is expensive enough that I can trust it, this is cheap enough that I am not being ripped off like an Upper East Sider, the reasonable price of their grass-fed ribs demonstrates such an admirable commitment to the neighborhood!, etc.  More to the point, in New York, with its lack of a generally elaborated culinary canon, an established item must usually be reinvented in some way.  Our foie gras comes with pineapple jelly; ours with Venezuelan chocolate. 

Conversely, new concoctions must be tied to the gastronomic memory of diners.  Shrimp with grits and pork belly gets a poached egg on top, giving the dish a reassuring breakfast-for-dinner feel.  In lamb roasted with Armagnac and Thai chilies, the trusty liquor, with its aroma of French authenticity, balances the – whoa! – Thai chilies, the name of which is more the point than the actual flavor – bourgeois New Yorkers have timid, oversweet palates.  Wild mint lemonade: the drink is a short tone poem of buzzwords, foraging-tasty-comfortable.  Hopeless cases are the dishes that achieved a vogue long ago, but not long enough that they are ready to be resurrected.  Just as scenesters exhume styles from about twenty years ago (in the nineties, platforms and bells, nowadays, skinny ties and prom dresses), so food items are ready for reclamation only after proper aging.  The fried chicken and collards that James Beard brought back as part of his interest in American regional foodways are good again; pasta primavera and chicken florentine, no sir.  Go ahead and ask for tiramisu somewhere.  (Interestingly, there does seem to be a relation between a food’s perceived ‘ethnicity’ and its likelihood of return; just as people forget the Tagores and remember the Yeats’, they seem to forget the vindaloos and remember the quenelles of pike.)

What emerges when one surveys New York’s food culture is a sense that certain dishes have ethnographic weight, or thickness, while others are believed to be inorganic impositions.  A New York Times (the absolute gold standard for food ideology) article about fried chicken depends on the M&G Diner up on 125th Street as the case for fried chicken’s indigenous connection to New York’s ‘soul.’  (That said, I love M&G’s fried chicken on Wonderbread very, very much.)  The vogues for gumbo, or ramps, however, will be harder to sustain that way.  At the top end, the foods that are granted permanent menu residence are not American regional at all: they are French.  The idea is of a taxonomized, fully articulated cuisine existing elsewhere, that must be strived for but can never be reached.  The scenes in Haneke’s Caché in which the ubër-bourgeois couple eats plain spaghetti or cheese and salami, however, are much more accurate as an index of modern Paris.  Without one partner living at home, not a lot of people are eating sauces gribiches or gigot d’agneau a la maison over there either.  There’s no going home again to your Provençal maman; French cuisine is curated and articulated in restaurants too.

New Yorkers stick to French, however, as part of a powerful cultural formation in which the worship of celebrity chefs often overwhelms all else.  Ask a New York food snob where their most memorable meals were, and you’ll hear the names Keller and Vongerichten and Boulud much more than you’ll hear ‘at a roadside roti shack in Flatbush,’ or ‘a bodega on Avenue A,’ or the obscurities you might expect from a modern-day A. J. Liebling with more self-respect than desire to genuflect.  There’s all too much faith in the real, actual superiority of these figures, despite the fact that you can go to, say, Babbo, and have the famous beef cheeks and find them oversauced and undersalted, because Mario’s in Sardinia or Las Vegas.  The use of taste as a form of distinction becomes very clear when you consider the reversal of fortunes of various meats over the last thirty years.  Where the tenderness and fatty evenness of beef tenderloin formerly held sway, the stringy, braise-requiring toughness of ‘peasant’ cuts like shanks and cheeks does today.  Those filet mignon and lobster tail eaters are now hopelessly déclassé, whereas the lover of sweetbreads or hanger steak announces herself as gastronomically up to date.

One food, however, that hasn’t seemed to need a resurrection at all, and that I believe stands in the middle of many of these opposing trends: the hamburger.  Unlike, say, penne alla arrabiata, a burger can be dressed up and down, served at the greasiest of spoons or to the most silvery palates.  Yeah, I know, Daniel makes one out of short ribs stuffed with foie gras for four thousand dollars.  I also know that you can get a perfectly passable one with decent fries for six bucks at Reservoir, or a million other places.  There are the neo-burger chains like Blue 9, or Better Burger, for your lover of Whole Foods-style marketing, just as fifteen years ago Paul’s on Second Avenue and the English muffin burger at Florent were the newest wave.  There are your supercool places, like Pop Burger and Burger Joint, the knowingly humble place hidden in the upscale Parker Meridien hotel.  There are the classics, Corner Bistro and Old Town and Union Square Café and Peter Luger, where the burger is made from porterhouse off-cuts and tastes like aged beef, which is weird.  Savoy has a grass-fed burger with mediocre house-made ketchup – sometimes the industrial choice is best.  There are the Williamsburg three, Diner and Relish and Dumont, which are all excellent – though Dumont’s burgers are slipping since they introduced their spinoff, Dumont Burger.  When I’m over at my friend Tricia’s, I often make late-night visits to White Castle – got a problem with that?  And there are thousands of other hamburgers in the city, at lunch counters (are any eating establishments, in New New York, as endangered and as beautiful as lunch counters?) and temples of cuisine and everything in between.

A hamburger is almost always the best value on a menu, calorie-wise and fillingness-wise, which makes no sense in pure economic terms.  With the high price of beef today, the ingredients in a half-pound, house-ground cheeseburger are far more expensive than a few ounces of penne, some tomatoes and a garlic clove.  Yet the pasta dish is always more, for solely sociological reasons.  People expect a burger to be affordable (unless the principle is being knowingly contravened, a la Café Boulud), and the very fact that a burger is a sandwich makes a category distinction that classes it with working lunches and food you eat with your hands.  Hamburgers reverse the very civilizing process of Western society, away from forks and the other distancing implements with which the physical body has been repressed.  (I refer here to Norbert Elias on how and where Europeans used to eat, blow their nose, spit, and vomit.)  The bun, the American addition to the German Hamburg-er, returns us to the prehistory of the plate, when food was served on bread that one tore chunks off of at will.  Accounts of burger eating so often focus on the necessity that a good burger’s juices drip down chin and fingers: part of the inner meaning of the burger is its revocation of the European taboo against soiling one’s hands with food.  In this to eat hamburgers is to indulge in a populist desire to part company with gastronomy altogether, with the notion of an elaborated cuisine.  And for this reason the hamburger is the American food that doesn’t wax and wane, that New Yorkers can have anywhere and everywhere, and that’s always a good deal.  I eat a lot of them.

See All Dispatches.