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Building a Better Burger

Burgers are the ultimate American food. Not those stale, thin, tasteless patties found on every corner in every city. No, the true burger is thick, full of flavor, the meat just ground, the buns fresh.

A great burger offers simple but powerful flavors. It's hot and easy to chew, and the juices drip down your chin, sending an atavistic memory of primal feasts racing through your nerves. If the burger is particularly good, you might catch yourself snorting in pleasure, thoughtlessly licking a finger, or grunting an answer to a question.

But imagine ordering a hamburger and getting a bill for $124.50 — without tax, tip or beverage (I don't know if you get fries with that). This particular burger is served at the Florida's Boca Raton Resort and Club and is made using two 10-ounce patties of Kobe beef. If you want to economize on your premium burger, DB Bistro in New York offers a burger that does come with fries, truffles and foie gras for $29.

For the past few years, burgers have been going upscale — way up the scale. But the trend dates back to the late 1960s. One of the first places to popularize fancy burgers was Ruby Tuesday, which started in Knoxville, Tenn. In fact, the second Ruby's opened two doors up from the Pier 1 Imports where I worked, and Sandy Beall, the chain's founder, bought much of the décor for his subsequent restaurants from me.

Ruby Tuesday's original menu featured items such as a burger with bacon and a rarebit-like sauce, and a burger topped with mushrooms sautéed in wine. These early Ruby Tuesday burgers were served on English muffins (also unusual) and were meant to be eaten with a knife and fork.

Sometimes, though, you need something more than a basic burger. One easy way to raise the stakes, so to speak, is to use steak and grind it yourself, or ask your butcher to do it.

If you're going that route, you might as well go all the way and use something like rib eye, which has a rich, meaty flavor and good marbling to produce a moist burger. It won't be cheap, but it won't be $30 a burger, either.

A less-expensive way to make a burger special is to flavor the beef patties, use something other than beef, or do both.

Fair warning: There are purists who argue that anything other than a beef patty is not a hamburger. One such conservative told me my bacon and Parmesan burger is really a sausage patty because it's made with pork. Some fundamentalists even maintain that adding anything to the ground beef is apostasy. I ran across a comment on a recipe for a beef burger that contained chopped onions and pickles, decrying it as "meatloaf."

Our modern hamburger seems to have originated in Germany as the Hamburg steak. The 1802 Oxford English Dictionary defined Hamburg steak as salt beef. This was a hard slab of salted, minced and sometimes smoked beef mixed with onions and breadcrumbs. This preserved meat was a staple for trans-Atlantic voyages; the goal was preservation, not flavor. Immigrants, who ate it on their way to the United States, began making it with fresh meat when they reached this country.

The origin of the modern burger served on bread is less certain; there are several stories about its genesis and little documentation. Whatever the origin, Hamburg steak seems to have provided the name, and ground beef became the standard.

But must you use ground beef for it to be a burger? I think not. My take on it is that a burger is composed of some sort of ground meat, formed into a patty, cooked and served in sandwich form. It may not be a true hamburger, but it is a burger. And besides, as long as it tastes good, who cares?

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Kevin Weeks