With tailgating season ahead, learn more about the history behind a classic handheld.
By Julian Brunt
There can be little doubt that the hamburger is the most iconic American food, and it is wildly loved around the world as well, with millions being served daily. But where did this steak between two slices of bread come from? Stories vary from convenience food served to workers during the Industrial Revolution to German restaurants in New York, Chicago or even a small town in Texas. But there is one fact that is absolute: it is another example of impoverished people doing what they can to get by on little or nothing.
Is the hamburger really a food inspired by poverty? Yup, you can be sure of it. The wealthy were steak eaters, but the poor could not afford such an expensive cut of meat. The solution was simple: small cast-off pieces of meat trimmings were ground up and reformed into a patty. It looks like a steak, tastes good and is far more affordable. Poverty provokes ingenuity.
Every town in the South has a burger place that the locals brag about. But when it comes to innovative ideas, burger makers just cannot be topped. Fine dining restaurants use Japanese wagyu beef for their patties, others top theirs with cave-aged Gruyère cheese, perhaps the king of all good melting cheeses, and there is a vast list of other toppings from bacon to fried pickles.
More often than not, great burgers are vaunted just by word of mouth or social media. When a good burger is found, word gets out fast, and lines will form. But Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has created the Burger Trail to advertise the city's famous burgers, with dozens of places advertised to attract locals and visitors alike. It is a pretty cool idea. But just where can you find the best burger of all?
It is pretty simple to break burgers down into two basic classes: homemade and restaurant-made. There are some pretty amazing burgers out there being made by professional chefs like the Land Mass Burger served at the sports bar at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi. It is an award-winning burger created by executive chef Kristen Wade, made with a smoky, grilled double-patty, American cheese, Mississippi tomato fondue, caramelized onions, crispy bread and butter pickles, a succulent blend of New Orleans barbeque sauce and Alabama white sauce. All of that is topped with a fried oyster. It has got to make you wonder; just how many kinds of burgers are there in the restaurant world?
In southern Mississippi, where I live, the po’boy is the most popular sandwich style and, as you might guess, hamburger po-boys are popular. My favorite comes from Fayard’s Marathon gas station on Washington Avenue in Ocean Springs. It is chargrilled and absolutely delicious, but I always order it with extra mayo. Any po’boy that does not require a handful of paper towels is just not up to snuff.
The Ole Biloxi Fillin’ Station also has a famous chargrilled burger, The Main Street Burger, made with half a pound of Angus beef and a blend of locally known secret spices and comes fully dressed (meaning lettuce, tomato and pickles). In Ocean Springs, there is a food truck called the Burger Box, which is all about burgers, as the name implies. They have burgers such as the BBQ burger, made with Angus beef, lettuce, tomatoes, caramelized onions, bacon, pickles, cheddar cheese and BBQ sauce. They also serve The Showtime Burger, made with a half-pound Kobe Beef patty, Muenster cheese, hickory smoked bacon, fried pickles, tomatoes, onion and lettuce.
My all-time favorite burger in the classic category comes from the Delta Corner in Indianola, Mississippi. It is a small, out-of-the-way restaurant famous for its fried chicken, but the burgers I have had there were sensational. I am not sure what makes this cheeseburger so good and can only guess it is the perfection of each ingredient. The bun is firm (I hate falling apart bread or buns) and tasty, the patty is hand-formed, perfectly seasoned and cooked, the pickles are crunchy. It must be magic. I have ordered the burger with a side of their famous pan gravy, which is typically served with their crazy good fried chicken, and although I get weird looks when I order it, it is a great combination.
Just down the street is the Blue Biscuit, so ably run by my friend Trish Berry, and she makes a killer good double burger. Trish was Morgan Freeman’s personal chef for years, and it shows in the delicious food served at the Blue Biscuit.
I could go on and on telling you about good restaurant burgers served in the South, but the very best burgers just might be the homemade variety. Restaurants have to make a profit and so must control food and operating costs, but the backyard griller does not have any restrictions.
Here are a few suggestions: hands down, the best fire for grilling is made with hickory wood. It is hard to find in some places and takes a while to burn down to the red glowing coals perfect for grilling, but it is worth the wait. Next is hardwood charcoal, followed by regular charcoal, then a propane fire and in last place is in a skillet on the stove.
The best beef has a high-fat content (fat equals flavor!) and, of course, Japanese wagyu is probably at the top of the list. Even a cheaper regular grocery store ground beef with the highest fat content can be delicious when well-seasoned. Certified Black Angus is good, too, but make sure it says certified, not just Angus.
The number one rule when cooking burgers is do not overcook the patty. Medium is best for texture and flavor. A well-done burger is going to be dry and uninteresting. There is a world of good cheese out there, with Gruyère at the top. A good English or Irish cheddar is good, and, if it is what you are used to, good ol' American cheese, if you use enough of it, is good, too. My favorite toppings include smoky Benton's bacon, heirloom sun-ripened tomatoes, Duke's mayo, crunchy pickles, a fried egg and a side of Zapp’s chips.
There really are so many good options when it comes to having friends over for a grill party. Remember that the quality of ingredients and taking the time to do things right will make all the difference in the world.