Confessions of a Hamburger Historian

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Have you ever eaten something so delicious you just can’t wait to get your hands on the recipe? You know how the next question is always, “I wonder who was the first person to make this delicious dish?”

Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, I show hungry hamburger enthusiasts the answer to who sold the first hamburger in my book Hamburger Dreams. Indeed, for the past three years, every May (National Beef Month) and, in particular, every May 28th (National Hamburger Day), I’m invited to appear in media across the country to explain how I used classic crime solving techniques to crack the case of America’s greatest culinary mystery.

Do you want to know what I’m asked most often?

Many less experienced interviewers will want me to reveal the details inside the book. In fact, just a few weeks ago I had an email exchange with a reporter. With each new email, he tried digging deeper and deeper into the secrets revealed in the book. Finally, I just told him, “In order to answer your question, I’d have to write a book. Oh, wait. I did write a book!”

That’s not the most asked question, though. Invariably, after we get over the details and the date of who sold the first hamburger and when they sold it, nearly every interview gets to some variation of a popular (but still not most asked) question: “What’s your favorite hamburger recipe?”

Spoiler alert: I’m not a chef. I’m just a journalist who stumbled his way into being called “the hamburger historian.” (Although, personally, I kind of like the more recent title granted me by the New Haven Register: “the burger master.” Does that make me a Burgermeister?)

So, no, I can’t describe the gastronomic nuances of particular varieties of hamburgers. I tell people, to get that answer, you’ll have to talk to my mother. She’s got a graduate degree in home economics. She knows all about recipes, nutrition, and food ingredients. Sure, I consume the fruits of her knowledge, but in ways that stimulate my taste buds, not my brain.

It was odd, then, that when the book first came out, the New York Beef Industry Council invited me to sit as a judge for their “Best NY Burger” contest. (You can read all the sordid details in “Heah Come Da (Hamburger) Judge!” from the May 23, 2019 edition of the Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.) Again, in the 300+ footnotes of Hamburger Dreams, not one of them contains a hint of recipes or a dash of cooking tips. Still, I made my publicist happy and sat amid accomplished chefs and cookery artists.

Again, I was surprised to be asked to write a piece for the “Cooking-n-Booking Digital Chef Competition” being held in Baton Rouge, San Antonio, and Houston and broadcast online on May 30th. (If you’re curious, you can check it out at https://cookingandbookingchefcookoff.mystrikingly.com/) Fortunately, I’m not being asked to judge, merely, to write a few words on behalf of organizer Sharon Jenkins.

The great thing about judging food is that there’s really not a right answer. For example – and I hope enthusiasts don’t consider this heresy for appearing in a column about hamburgers – I prefer my hot dogs warmed to a brownish shade. My home economist mother likes them, shall we say, “well done.” I call them “burnt” since their once pinkish skin has been transformed to the color of blackened charcoal. But, hey, to each his own. Besides, she’s my mother and I can’t tell her she’s wrong.

Judging food really depends on your own personal palate. And maybe your age. You see, I’m really not a trained historian (I only picked it up on the streets). I am a trained scientist, however (specifically, physics and astronomy). I do know that taste buds change as you get older. That means younger folks can’t tolerate hot peppers as much as us older folks.

In other words, younger people might judge a Cajun dish differently than someone with a few more years under their belt. Of course, I think my taste buds are different. I have always ordered my chicken wings hot. Not crazy hot, but tasty hot.

Which gets to the question interviewers ask me most often: “Where do you go to get your favorite hamburger?”

Ah, now that’s one I have no problem answering. In fact, it’s the same answer I suspect you offer as well.

When asked where do I go to get my favorite hamburger, just like everybody else, I present this same four-word response:

“In my own backyard.”

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