When I first read about this burger in Saveur, I knew I had to try it. Soy sauce, capers, ham, tomato, carrot, apple and cheese inside the patty? This read like something out of a Top Chef quick fire challenge, not a patty that would satisfy the likes of Ernest Hemingway. But there it is (link below), typewritten and annotated with additions and variations from the man himself, preserved and recently digitized thanks to the JFK presidential library. If it was good enough for Hemingway, it would certainly be good enough for my 40th birthday dinner.
Saveur has done a good job at consolidating the recipe from the original although some purists out there would say otherwise. The real challenge was finding a couple of the more obscure ingredients. Indian pickle is actually still available online for those who plan ahead, made by Heinz or B&G . It’s not Indian or English but rather a strange American version of an Indian Pickle. After scouring a few specialty shops in Vancouver, I gave up and substituted Piccallili, the English mustard based relish which is mentioned as a substitute in the recipe. Nester’s on Main and 28th has a well hidden expat section where you can find it along with proper cans of Heinz baked beans, Ready Brek and a few other choice british imports.
The second hurdle was the Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning. Again, for those dedicated enough, it is available online but can be recreated with several recipes I found. The most basic consists of half onion powder and half celery salt. There are a few more that add mace, nutmeg and few other trace spices but I didn’t feel like buying an entire spice rack to recreate a half teaspoon of the original. This burger was feeling epic enough already.
The last hiccup was the Mei Yen powder which has been discontinued. Saveur had substituted soy sauce for it. In actual fact, it’s 9 parts sugar, 9 parts salt and 2 parts MSG. I went with soy sauce but dumped in a teaspoon of sugar for good measure. Apparently Papa enjoyed his chinese food a lot and wanted to bring that flavour into his patty. Now we would just say that he was trying to create the ultimate umami burger experience.
On the bun side, I went with Swiss Bakery who produce a very good brioche style hamburger roll. They hide a lot of bread in the back, so be sure to ask for it or order it advance. Their potato rolls are amazing too. The meat was from Windsor Meats on Main, my neighbourhood butcher shop. The recipe called for lean, but I went for their medium ground which they grind fresh daily with a blend of chuck and lean. I was pretty sure ground beef was a lot fattier 50 years ago.
Having assembled all 17 ingredients, it was the simple matter of combining them all into one bowl. There are some great instructions from Papa himself on this process, “Let the bowl of meat sit out of the icebox for ten to fifteen minutes while you set the table and make the salad”. I went with Saveur’s less romantic “Mix the ingredients”. In fact, I just started at the top and worked my way down the list, piling it all one on top of each other until the bowl was nearly full. And then the best part where I did follow Papa’s words verbatim, “Now make four fat juicy patties with your hands”. Each burger weighed in at half a pound once combined and four of them just fit in my cast iron lodge pan. I was tempted to throw them on the charcoal grill but once they started frothing in their own juices I knew I had made the right choice.
Papa had some very specific cooking instructions to follow but by now, with my stomach rumbling in anticipation, I just went on instinct. A quick flip 4 minutes later, I could see a decent crispy crust formed on the other side. 4 minutes later it was out of the pan, into a bun with the traditional lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard (I actually had run out of ketchup, thanks to my ketchup guzzling children). With the final addition of fried onions over raw, I finally chomped down on the closest I would get to Papa’s Wild West Burger. Most of the time, when I eat a burger, it’s really just an excuse for all the toppings. But this, this was something else. Like a moist meatloaf packed with a perfect blend of flavour. There was a moment of silence around the table as everyone just savoured it and chewed slowly letting the sweet salty blend of meat, ham, veg and spices wash over them. And suddenly the massive burger in front of me had disappeared replaced by a glow of happy fullness. There was no need and no room for seconds. So, while it has to go down as one of the more complex patties to make, it is worth every minute. Thanks Papa, for the great works and now a great burger.