When I say I’m the world’s greatest cook, I don’t mean chef. The word “chef” reminds me of some character in The Marx Brothers Hang Out at the Ritz: “Ze soufflé! You haf make it go fall. I spit in the potage of your mother!”
Also, I don’t mean I’m a cook like Richard Simmons or Graham Kerr or any of those other 87-cent phonies you see chopping cauliflower and harping about nutrition on TV. I don’t cook anything I wouldn’t personally eat, and I’d rather eat a boiled tennis ball than cauliflower. Some other things I don’t eat are zucchini, mushrooms, bananas, and anything amandine. I also don’t eat mayonnaise (Miracle Whip is okay) or put ketchup in my coffee. As for nutrition, I can look at my belt size and tell that I get more than my share. Nutrition is something you worry about in East Calcutta or maybe Detroit.
My taste buds were educated during World War II, when America traveled on its stomach. Arlington, where I grew up, was still a country town, a couple of stop-lights between the Liliard Hog Farm and the Eastern Star Home. My family enjoyed cooking, especially my daddy and my granny, and I enjoyed watching them because the kitchen was the most gregarious room in the house. Long after supper the family used to sit around the kitchen table, talking about Roosevelt and ration stamps and the day to come when butter would again be yellow. Well-being was a tub of iced beer, a bowl of chile peppers, and a pot of red beans simmering on the back burner. Daddy taught me to revere the lowly legume and respect the violent chile, and to keep both handy. Granny taught me to wring the necks of chickens and singe off the pinfeahers, and to appreciate green onions, which cure colds, and zinc oxide, which cures everything else, and to abide by the cryptic message of Roy Acuff and the Great Speckled Bird.
You could tell the days of the week around our house by what was on the kitchen table. Roast beef and chocolate pie, it must be Sunday. Monday was roast beef hash. Tuesday was ham with hominy. Wednesday might or might not be meat loaf. Late in the week we’d have what was called BBF (balance brought forward), which was whatever was left over, done with considerable imagination. Saturday night was spent at the counter of Mrs. Douglas’ tiny cafe, a little greasy spoon beer joint across the tracks from Southern Ornamental Iron Works, watching that splendid little lady cook burgers.
I loved to play the pinball machine and filch corners of beer from the bottles of Grand Prize consumed in heroic numbers by the factory workers who gathered to play dominoes. Miz Doug’s hamburger secret, which became mine, was to use second-issue meat—not the pale brown stuff that looks like dirty Crisco, but not the bright red stuff either. Medium-priced meat that sizzles the second you splat it on the hot, well-seasoned grill, that’s what she used. Everything must be sliced thin—the tomato, the onion, the pickle—and the meat patties should be pounded thin, too. Sour pickles only, please, and tomatoes that are slightly overripe. The lettuce should be loose leaf, the bun thin and small. The bun is grilled face down along with the meat, making use of the drippings, and in the final stages it’s burned slightly on the top side. The warm bun is then stacked on top of the sizzling meat and pressed down with one final slap of the greasy spatula. This final slap and sizzle is a matter of faith.
So is the manner in which the hamburger goes together. First, slather one half of the grilled bun with a lot of mustard. Lay on the lettuce, then the paper-thin slices of tomato (salt and pepper at this stage), then the onion and pickle, finally the meat and the other half of the bun. Miz Doug immediately wrapped the burgers in sheets of waxed paper (paper towels will do) to seal in the flavors and served them so hot you could faint just inhaling the aroma. No matter how many you ordered (a half-dozen was barely enough for a twelve-year-old), she cooked them one at a time so they always arrived hot and fresh.
There are other ways to cook hamburgers, though none with the perfect symphony of taste and texture achieved by Miz Doug’s creation. One acceptable example is the J. G. Melon Burger, named after my favorite hamburger joint in New York. This is a thick patty of ground sirloin grilled fast and rare and served on a toasted English muffin with Dijon mustard and a slice of purple onion. The other worthy is the specialty of a walk-up stand a couple of blocks from the Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth. Famous Hamburgers, I think they call it. What they do is pound some chopped onions into one side of the meat before grilling. The buns, of course, are grilled along with the meat and onions. The only condiment is mustard.
Incidentally, if you don’t own a well-seasoned grill, a heavy, well-seasoned black skillet will do. If you don’t own a heavy black skillet, do what the French do—run for it.
I was a freshman in college when I discovered that raw hamburger meat won’t kill you. Steak Hun, I call it now. I was working as a dishwasher in a Colorado resort called Troutdale-in-the-Pines. The chef d’el was a Norwegian bully who seasoned everything with anise and fennel, but the real artist in that kitchen was a gin-soaked short-order cook named Foley, whose Steak Hun with capers and anchovy kept me from starving and gave me new insight into the animal kingdom. Foley ground only the freshest, choicest sirloin, mixed it by hand with capers, chopped green onions, chopped peppers, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, fresh lemon juice, an egg yolk, and usually a few ashes from the unfiltered Camel that always dangled from