Barbara Kay: Burgers, balmy weather and summer’s other little pleasures


National Post - Thursday July 10th, 2014

AP Photo/Matthew Mead
When I served steak to my family – even perfectly done – everyone was happy. But when I served hamburgers – supposedly the most banal of barbecue staples – everyone’s pleasure was notably more intense.

In the spring, a young man’s fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of love, but in the summer, most Canadian men’s fancy usually turns to thoughts of barbecue, and what will be sizzling on its greasy grates. It’s not always the man who does the barbecuing, of course, but since all the summer TV ads for beer show a guy happily “manning” the barbecue, it must mean the stereotype is largely true. Marketers have no ideology; they know their success lies entirely in following statistics.

In our household, it is indeed my husband who barbecues, even though he’s never loved the role. I personally think I could do a better job of it – as the household cook for everything else, my instinct for medium-rare, medium and medium-well is pretty acute, while my husband pathetically relies on a timer, sometimes miscalculating the thickness of the meat – but I have resisted the impulse for 50 years, knowing that if I did it once, I would be stuck with it forever. And since I have to do everything else to ensure we all sit down to a beautifully accessorized main course, I have my hands full already.

The ultimate barbecue treat is supposedly a perfectly cooked, juicy steak. For many years, when we had dinner company, I automatically bought steak to make the meal “special.” Two things gradually dawned on me to change that habit.

The first was that one’s disappointment in cutting into an over-cooked steak is hugely disproportionate to any other overcooked food: I’ve eaten overcooked chicken and fish with stoic dissatisfaction, but somehow overcooked steak fills me with a feeling of resentment bordering on road rage. And, as I say, my husband’s track record gives me no guarantees that an obscenely expensive investment won’t be a wipeout.

The second thing I noticed was that when I served steak to my family – even perfectly done – everyone was happy. But when I served hamburgers – supposedly the most banal of barbecue staples – everyone’s pleasure was notably more intense. Even when they were brown all through, instead of pinkish in the centre. Even when the meat wasn’t Angus or organic or freshly ground at some fancy boutique butcher. And it then occurred to me that even I myself was more enthused about a hot-off-the barbecue hamburger than I was about steak. I came to the conclusion that no steak I have ever eaten at home compared to the gustatory memorability of a great steakhouse steak, but I’ve had many hamburgers at home that compared well to restaurant burgers, even those at specialty or upscale burger places.

With burgers, the fun and the pleasure lie largely in how you accessorize them

So now when company comes, I make hamburgers. I get them (raw, already formed into patties) from the Steerburger restaurant in downtown Montreal, where they throw in a 13th patty if you buy a dozen. They freeze fine, but for company it’s nice to get them fresh. And fresh buns, of course – nothing fancy, just the soft packaged ones – which of course must be lightly toasted before serving, ditto the cheese on the burger.

One nice thing about steak is that you only need some spices or sauce to accompany it. With burgers, the fun and the pleasure lie largely in how you accessorize them. You have to put out a wide variety of stuff: mustard, relish, ketchup – that goes without saying. Mayo was an innovation for us, introduced by my son-in-law. Lettuce, tomato slices, to be sure. Also thinly sliced red onion, jalapeño peppers, cooked bacon strips and thin pickle slices.

That’s a lot of stuff to put out on the table. And building the burger takes time, with much passing to and fro of the sliced-tomato plate and the onion bowl and the condiments and so forth. There’s tension until you get the burger built, because you don’t want it to be cool by the time you take that first massive bite.

Last night we sat out on our deck in perfect balmy weather. My husband cooked our burgers to pinkish-middle perfection

Last weekend in one of the lifestyle sections of a newspaper, I read a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that tip from a chef who loves burgers, but likes to simplify his life. Following his directions, I took one bowl and into I put: chopped-up tomatoes, chopped onions, chopped jalapeño peppers, chopped lettuce, chopped gherkins (instead of relish), mustard, ketchup and mayo. One bowl instead of ten different units.

Last night we sat out on our deck in perfect balmy weather. My husband cooked our burgers to pinkish-middle perfection. It took 4 seconds and one teaspoon instead of two minutes to build my burger. It was hot and delicious. I was happy. It’s always the little things, isn’t it?