The Humble Hamburger

The hamburger origin dispute is fun. The effort made to claim the invention of the hamburger is in stark contrast to effort needed to make one. There is one claim by Carlie Nagreen of Hortonville, WI, who claimed to serve them first at the Seymour County Fair in 1885. There are also claims for invention at a lunch counter in New Haven, CT., in 1900 and at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1906. Barry Popik may have the final word on the subject. A quick summary: “Hamburger sandwiches” were a nation-wide phenomenon by the late 1800’s based on an adaption of Hamburg steak from Germany and spread across the U.S. by immigrants. Here is one of my favorite references:

October 1883, The Caterer and Household Magazine, pg. 76, col. 1:
“I should like a recipe for ‘Hamburger steak,’ a dish I am very fond of, but I must confess have not been successful in preparing.”
Or, instead of frying, place your steaks upon a gridiron or double wire broiler, well greased, and broil them on both sides; place them on a hot dish, and pour over them melted butter seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper. This mixture of meat is also often spread upon slices of bread, with butter in which a spoonful of dry mustard has been mixed, and used as a sandwich, or it may be served raw and cold with slices of Vienna bread spread with gilt-edged butter.

A few things are very clear – hamburgers as we think of them today, are simply a sandwich adaptation of a much older Hamburg steak tradition. The description above predates every single origination claim. Basically, no one can lay claim to the invention, but they’re still going to try. The second thing that is very clear, this is not Great Lakes Cuisine. Now there are a few hallmarks of Great Lakes Cuisine here – immigrant dish with some deep roots in the Germanic immigration to the Great Lakes region. But this is a dish that has simply become ubiquitous, it belongs to everyone and no one. It is not uniquely identifiable with the Great Lakes region. That doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy a great burger. So just to indulge a bit, here are some recent favorites. (Oh and before I move on,if you get really food geeky and want a description of gilt-edged butter like I did – here you go)

Prepared very similarly to our description from 1883 above. Pretzel bun, malt vinegar caramelized onions
Prepared very similarly to our description from 1883 above. Pretzel bun, malt vinegar caramelized onions.


Brie and caramelized onions
Brie and caramelized onions, from John’s Sandwich Shop in Wauwatosa, WI. Note the broccoli slaw served as a side, delicious.


Mac-n-cheeseburger enjoyed with a Road Slush Stout from the fine folks at New Glarus Brewing.
Mac-n-cheeseburger enjoyed with a Road Slush Stout from the fine folks at New Glarus Brewing. Would have been even better with our Ultimate Mac.


Not even a hamburger – Thin sliced, house roast beef on a pretzel bun with arugula, blue cheese, and malt vinegar caramelized onions.

A couple of honorable mentions – We enjoyed a patty melt recently made with a half and half mixture of ground sirloin and bratwurst removed from the casing, topped with our ever-present malt vinegar caramelized onions, shredded Montamore from Sartori Cheese, on marble rye from the folks at Clasen Bakery. Again, not technically a burger, but we’re not getting suddenly technical around here.

A second honorable mention for a burger inspired by Cafe Bavaria in Wauwatosa, where they have a build-your-own burger option. The menu features a Braunschweiger melt, which is just as it sounds, braunschweiger with melted muenster cheese. We used that as our inspiration and had a Braunschweiger Smashed Burger – 1/3 pound beef patty, braunshweiger, muenster, lagered onions and Dusseldorf mustard on a pretzel bun. The result was “meatiness squared” as the braunschweiger just amped up the burger to another level.

Now those last two are pretty representative of our local ethnic traditions, locally produced food, and put together in new ways. Maybe we’re talking about Great Lakes Cuisine here after all.

The Autumn Ritual – Apple Orchard Trip

A recent piece by James Norton over at HeavyTable on the “Noble Farce” of the modern apple orchard inspired me to comment here on our autumn ritual of visiting the folks at Barthel Fruit Farm in Mequon, WI. If you haven’t read the blog, articles, and books by Mr. Norton over at HeavyTable, you are missing out. Please go read them now. He proposes a 10-point scale for the modern apple orchard which try ever so nobly to generate a profit from a seasonal influx of city dwellers. His scale is for the level of “farce” involved: a full 10 is essentially an apple-themed amusement park and a 1 is just trees in a field. He opts for the farm with at least a corn maze and apple-cider doughnuts, something like a 7 on his scale. I can respect that, but for me and mine, I’ll take something a bit closer to a 2 or 3 on the scale. Rolling hills, rows of many different apple varietals, a pumpkin field, and fresh pressed cider in the lower level of the barn. I lean rustic.


Making the annual visit with the family obviously adds to my fondness for the excursion. Barthels allows cars to drive into the orchard on a gravel road to park close to the trees that are available for picking at the time. We timed our visit for the Honeycrisp apples, which pairs very nicely with an aged cheddar or perhaps with a creamy blue cheese in a salad with walnuts. We also picked a bushel of Cortland apples, which are great for applesauce and apple pie. The day was one of those “warm for fall” sort of days, when you are hot when the sun is beating down on you, but can get suddenly chilled in the shade with just a slight breeze. A fall day that reminds you the summer is coming to a close. The geese fly in formation south, calling loudly, bon voyage. We are left behind to hunker down, eat well, and prepare for the cold months ahead.


With our bounty of apples, we turned our efforts to a batch of applesauce – simply peeled and cored, cut into large dice and then simmered with a splash of apple cider. We add brown sugar and/or apple cider vinegar to balance the sweetness or the “tanginess” to the desired level and then add cinnamon and a bit of powdered clove, sometimes a bit of nutmeg, allspice, the standard autumn spices. A potato masher breaks the apples down to a nice texture, a hand blender would create something more like store-bought. I like a little texture – like I said, I lean rustic. I like it warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, light sprinkle of powdered clove. The whole experience – walking the fields, picking the apples, enjoying a cider or a caramel apple in the barn, peeling the apples with the kids, patiently waiting for the applesauce to break down to the perfect flavor and texture, and then enjoying it with the cool contrast of ice cream – the whole experience is part of our fall ritual. And it is part of what it means to live in the Great Lakes region – bountiful harvest, changing seasons, hunkering down, together.


Fall Harvest Chicken

If you are driving the stretch of land between Grand Rapids and Lake Michigan you will see a patchwork of farms around the town of Hudsonville and in late fall some of those farms will be harvesting winter squash, a seemingly endless variety of shapes in oranges and greens. If you happen to stumble across the white acorn squash, buy one or two. The creamy white flesh becomes wonderfully buttery when roasted. In this recipe, the squash is roasted under a brined, roasted chicken for over an hour along with carrots and onion, with the addition of late fall herbs and a bit of apple for brightness.

Fall Harvest Chicken1



Fall Harvest Chicken

4 cups unfiltered apple cider
½ cup salt
6 cloves garlic, crushed, skins on
2 bay leaves
8 whole peppercorns
16 whole coriander seeds
½ cup fresh chopped oregano
½ cup fresh chopped savory (or thyme)
4 cups ice

4 lb. whole chicken
4 Tbs. butter
1 quartered Honey Crisp apple

2 acorn squash, pealed, seeded, large cubes
4 carrots, peeled, large pieces (similar size to squash)
2 medium sweet onions, 8 pieces each
2 Tbs. vegetable oil

To make the brine: Place first 6 ingredients in a stock pot over medium high heat. Add half of the oregano and savory. Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat then add the ice. The amount of ice does not have to be exact, but the brine should end up at room temperature and should have a saltiness similar to a salty broth. Remove neck and innards from cavity and place chicken in a container just large enough to hold it and cover it with the brine. Allow it to sit in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours.

Fall Harvest Chicken

Remove chicken from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour prior to cooking. Pre-heat oven to 475°F. Place the acorn squash, carrot, onion, and oil in a heavy cast iron roaster or similar pan large enough to accommodate the chicken. Sprinkle with herbs. Stuff apple into the cavity of the chicken and then settle the chicken into the middle of the vegetables, breast side down. After 25 minutes, turn chicken over and slide butter under the skin above the breast. Turn oven down to 400°F and return pan to the oven and cook for an additional 45 minutes or until an internal temperature of 160°F. The legs of the chicken should be loose and the juices run clear. Remove chicken from pan and allow to rest on a carving board.

Fall Harvest Chicken4

We served this on a bed of red kale sauteed with shallots, which provides a nice bit of bitterness to contrast the sweet richness of the roasted squash. The apple cider brined chicken, along with the Honey Crisp roasted inside, added a hint of brightness. We had house-made spiced apple sauce which we served warm alongside the chicken. Overall it was a wonderful Sunday dinner, celebrating the fall harvest, and a fine example of Great Lakes Cuisine.