It’s the 4th of July, otherwise known as Independence Day. A day for parades, outdoor concerts, fireworks, and la piece de resistance, an all-out barbecue (or BBQ) featuring that all-American dish, the hamburger. But is it so all-American?
There are many theories on where hamburgers come from. Some sources say they came from Hamburg, Germany. Some say they originated in Hamburg, New York. According to What’s Cooking America, people have been eating chopped meat since Genghis Khan’s time. One thing is certain – most Americans don’t care where their hamburgers came from as long as they taste good.
Until recently, it was nearly impossible to find a decent hamburger in France. Call me a food snob, but the flat grayish discs that are served in fast food chains all over France and the rest of the world do not qualify as hamburgers in my book. But in the last couple of years, hamburger restaurants and American-style diners have been popping up all over.
The American hamburger is all about the meat, sometimes called chopped meat, mince, ground beef or a patty, depending upon regional differences in the U.S. In my opinion, a good hamburger is like a good quality steak chopped up and served in a bun.
The hamburger is arguably the staple of the 4th of July barbecue (of course, there are exceptions made for non-meat eaters). I didn’t have access to real American burgers for most of the last 15 years, so here are a few basic hamburger principles I’ve learned over the years in France.
- Use fresh meat: add in chopped onion, herbs and spices, a dash of Worcestershire, Tabasco and douse it with beer while it’s on the flames. If you’re using low-fat meat, add a beaten egg so the burgers don’t crumble
- Toast your buns: an untoasted bun is a soggy bun. Yuck!
- Use real cheese: cheddar is the cheese of choice, but if you can’t find it, young gouda or cantal entre deux both melt well. You can also try less traditional hamburger cheeses like roquefort, bleu or chèvre. These add a little more kick.
- Top your burger: use red onions, tomatoes, avocado slices, lettuce, pickles, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise or a mix of all of the above.
- Use your hands: a real hamburger cannot be eaten with a fork and knife.
This last point is what separates Americans from everyone else. During a recent cultural excursion with my family to the newly opened American diner outside of Lille, we noted that about half of the restaurant-goers ate their burgers with their hands and the other half ate them with a fork and knife. Your hands – and a very wide mouth – are the only utensils you need to eat a good hamburger. When your burger is topped with gloppy ketchup, melted cheese and juicy vegetables, and the meat juice is dripping down onto your lap, that’s when you realize the importance of the well-toasted bun, which acts as an extra barrier between your dripping food and your clothes.
You can complete your July 4th meal with coleslaw (originally a Dutch dish), potato salad (originally a German dish) and corn on the cob (originally a Native American dish). And do not forget the blueberry pie! Finish your meal with fresh watermelon slices (eaten with your hands) and a watermelon seed spitting contest.
And that’s American as apple pie!
For a French twist on an American classic, check out these cookbooks :