Sunday, May 30, 2010

Burgers are in my blood

wilhemina standing

Great-grandmother Wilhemina, ca. 1880.

In a way, you could say that this was the story that I was born to write. Because, you see, hamburgers are in my blood.

Like all things American, the hamburger came from somewhere else, in the case of the all-American burger, with German immigrants in the mid-19th century. Originally, it was a “Hamburg steak,” a patty of seasoned, ground meat and somewhere along the line, a clever soul added a bun and it became a hamburger. Germany was the predominant country of origin for American immigrants for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century. These immigrants included the parents of my great-grandmother, Wilhemina Hamberger, called Minnie. That's right, my great-grandmother was Minnie Hamberger, a name I have always found amusing, bringing to mind images of sliders and Krystals.

My great-grandfather Otto Eggert was born in appropriately enough, Hamburg, Germany, in 1859 and emigrated with his parents as a young child, settling in Saginaw, Michigan. Wilhemina and Otto married in 1884 and they lived in Montrose, Michigan, where he owned a store, later becoming a traveling salesman based in Toledo, Ohio. Mom says they were middle class, but I know they must have had plenty to eat - look at how much they changed in the last picture - the trim young couple in the 1880s, and the stout couple in the 20th century. They died within a year of each other, Minnie first, in 1925.

Otto and his son Edwin, in Toledo, around 1900.

In between, they had three daughters and a son, my grandfather, Edwin Carl Eggert. Granddaddy was a lively personality, a bit of an adventurer and a thrillseeker. He astonished my brothers and me when he rode a rollercoaster with us - he was in his 80s. He worked at his office job the day he died, just before Christmas 1978. That day, he took presents in for “the girls” (the secretaries at his office), came home, sat in his chair to read the mail, and died. He was 89 years old.

When I remember Granddaddy Eggert, I can't help but think of the changes he saw in his lifetime. He grew up riding horses and ice skating on a frozen river to school (or so he claimed). When he died, he drove a 1977 Chevy Malibu and hopped on an airplane to visit his children in Florida and Georgia. He loved to entertain his grandchildren, and I remember especially that he loved cheeseburgers.

Otto & Minnie in later years, ca. 1920.

Well into a second century of food icon status, the all-American hamburger has seen its share of changes, too. When I make burgers, I like to use bison or buffalo meat. I’m not sure if Minnie would approve, but when she grew up, the mighty beasts still roamed the Great Plains. Bison is a lean meat, with significantly less calories and cholesterol than beef or chicken. And while it’s not quite beefy, it does have a satisfying meaty taste and texture. It responds to seasoning well, and that’s why I beef up my bison with kitchen sink ingredients - soy sauce, steak sauce and chopped onion. I love to use the new slider buns available in the supermarket - it's a more favorable bun-to-burger ratio - so for my Great-Grandmother Minnie Hamberger, I present a mini-hamburger.


Buffalo Sliders

Makes six ¼ pound sliders

½ medium onion

1 1/3 pound ground bison or beef

¼ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons steak sauce, such as Heinz 57

6 wheat slider buns


3 slices white American cheese, halved

3 bread and butter pickle sandwich slices, halved

1. Finely dice the onion and place in small bowl with water. Microwave for one minute, let cool, then drain.

2. In a bowl, mix together ground bison (or beef), cooled and drained onion, salt, pepper, Worcestershire, soy sauce and steak sauce. Using your hands and a light touch, combine thoroughly. Shape into six ¼- pound patties, round and an even thickness. If making ahead, wrap and refrigerate for up to a day.

3. Set a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Fry burgers in batches, if necessary, until desired degree of doneness, about five minutes on the first side, three minutes on the second for well done. Remove from skillet and drain on paper towels. (If you have a grillmeister in the house, by all means, grill the burgers.)

4. Toast the buns and assemble sandwiches: spread bun with mayonnaise, add patty, then cheese, then pickle.

© 2010, Lucy Mercer.

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