Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, December 24, 2003


Page 15



Do You Remember the Days of Juicy Hamburgers?




It would have taken the prescience of Nostradamus to have imagined but a few decades back that the hamburger—as a hamburger then was—would become the subject of nostalgia.

Items still appear on menus denominated “hamburgers.” But what I think of as a hamburger and what my daughter fancies as a “burger” are disparate foods.

Both are grilled beef patties. But the contemporary version starts as a thin, frozen, perfectly-round meat-tablet which is then griddled until hot and brown throughout. The hamburger I remember was thick and juicy, red or pink in the middle (the hue depending on whether it was rare, medium-rare or medium), which started with freshly ground meat fashioned by hand into a glob of slightly irregular proportions.

No longer are hamburgers juicy. That’s partly because juiciness is dependent on high fat content. Contemporary concern over cholesterol has put the kibosh on hamburgers with 25 percent fat content, as they used to be. The result is that patties in restaurants are dry. Ones cooked at home are also apt to be dry owing to the general unavailability of fatty raw hamburger in markets.

Too, hamburgers are no longer served other than well-done. By the time frozen patties become hot, they’re necessarily well-done. Even when fresh meat is used, restaurants generally opt to cook them past pinkness out of fear of liability if a customer became sick from a burger infested with E. coli bacteria, which causes bloody diarrhea and has even been linked to deaths.

Though cooking hamburgers until they’re parched does kill bacteria, it’s recently been found that it creates a health threat far worse than bloody diarrhea: cancer. As summarized in a publication of the University of Idaho:

“Associations between intake of well-done meat and increased risk of lung, breast, and colorectal cancers has been shown in epidemiological studies. Thus, although cooking meat thoroughly is necessary to destroy pathogenic bacteria, this practice can increase carcinogenic exposure.”

The article pointed to a study conducted at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California which found that cooking hamburgers at a high temperature or for a long time produces chemical compounds called heterocyclic amines, which are carcinogenic.

A study at the University of Minnesota showed that women who eat hamburgers that are very well done have a 50 percent greater risk of contracting breast cancer than women who eat hamburgers that cooked rare or medium.

“Johnny Rocket’s” is a chain of 1950s style restaurants. My wife and I went to the one in Farmer’s Market. I was expecting, foolishly, a hamburger like that served in the 1950s at, say, Hamburger Hamlet.

I asked for a hamburger medium-rare. The patty I got was not only well-done, but tasted as if it had been sitting on the grill for four hours or so. It was hard and devoid of moisture—sort of a hamburger jerky.

I sent it back.

A few minutes later, the waitress came by and announced, with wonderment at my magnificent luck, that the chef was cooking a hamburger especially for me!

I didn’t mention to the young woman that it used to be that every hamburger was thrown on the fire only after a customer had ordered it.

Anyway, the specially prepared repast was ultimately bestowed upon me and, while the patty had been cooked several minutes past “medium rare,” it actually qualified, though barely so, as edible.

At Johnny Rocket’s, red stools at the counter and the jukebox playing Frank Sinatra records evoke memories of the 1950s. The food doesn’t.

The best hamburger on a menu I can remember was the “ShipShape” at Ship’s. I frequented the one in Westwood, founded in 1956 by the late Emmett Shipman. He opened two other Ships: in West Los Angeles and Culver City. (All closed in the 1990s.)

The “ShipShape” was a half pound oval patty, oozing with juice, served on grilled sourdough toast and smothered in caramelized onions.

“I miss that menu item and we own the business,” M.W. Shipman, a principal in the company that owned Ship’s, told me in an e-mail, adding:

“With new AQMD and State/City burdens that hamburger could cost $15.00  today.....just kidding. In San Francisco, at  Joe’s Cable Car on Silver Ave, there is a very close quality matched hamburger, at about $9.00. Cost was about $4.50 at the time for our ShipShape.”

He may have been kidding about the $15 price tag, but at Pacific Dining Car, where you can still get a thick patty cooked medium-rare, the charge is $18.50.

My mother made hamburgers for the family Mid-West style. The ground beef was combined with raw eggs and bread crumbs. The patties, broiled in the oven, were plump and moist.

Now that was a hamburger.

Next week I’ll tell you about the history of hamburgers.


Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company


MetNews Main Page      Reminiscing Columns