The Burger Police


Melissa Stagnaro

The beef industry must love the Fourth of July.

I won’t even hazard a guess at how many steaks, burgers and (hot) dogs were slapped on grills this past weekend, as Americans from coast to coast celebrated the birth of our great nation the only way they know how: With a barbecue, of course.

Because, really, what says “Happy Independence Day” like a healthy assortment of grilled meat with a fireworks chaser?

For those who eschew the wonders of red-meat, please feel free to substitute the poultry or non-meat option of your choice. But me, I love a good burger, especially one cooked over an open flame.

In my family, there are burgers and there are my father’s burgers. Yes, they are a category unto themselves. And they are only for the most adventurous of eaters.

I should start by saying that my father is not a cook, nor does he have any desire to be one. He is more than happy to let someone else don the apron and slave away at the stove or grill.

There are but two exceptions to this rule. The first are his pancakes, which only the privileged get to enjoy. The second, his signature burgers.

What separates his version of the American classic from your basic burger?  Probably the fact that his recipe includes basically all of the major food groups. While most recipes include just a few seasonings, my father is inclined to include copious amounts of fresh chopped onion, half a loaf of white bread, and generous heapings of pepper, salt and enough garlic powder to keep even the most gregarious of vampires at bay.

There may be a few other seasonings in there, too, which he’s keeping to himself. But that’s not what makes my dad’s burgers truly unique. What does? Raisins.

Go ahead and take a moment to let that sink in, and for your gag reflex to subside.

Raisins have their place, don’t get me wrong. I consider them a wonderful addition to any lunch box, and particularly endearing perched on the top of a peanut butter laden celery stick in the classic after-school snack known as “ants on a log.” No Irish soda bread is complete without them and, even though I prefer chocolate chips, I am not averse to them in an oatmeal cookie.

But in a burger? I think not. Frankly, I believe it crosses all kinds of lines of acceptability, and would fully warrant a visit from the burger police, if such an agency did in fact exist.

My father didn’t always sully his burgers in this way. No, once his burgers were perfectly palatable. But that was before an ill-fated trip to his Uncle Louis planted the idea in his head.

Uncle Louis, husband to my grandmother’s sister Florence (a.k.a. Aunt Flo), was 100 percent Italian. And trust me, he was no culinary amateur. He made some of the best sauce I’ve ever tasted (even though he insisted on calling it gravy), and I’m pretty sure his pasta fagioli was the one that made Dean Martin’s stars drool in That’s Amore.

What he was thinking when he added raisins to a burger in my father’s presence I will never know. But my dad took it, and ran with it.

I’ll never forget the first time my father made what would become his signature dish. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time, and impressionable. I indulged his culinary whimsy and tried the burger as offered.

It wasn’t half bad, I’ll admit. But when I asked him what his secret ingredient was, his response spoiled them for me forever.

“Are they raisins?” My adolescent self queried.

“No,” he replied. “They’re dead flies.”

Needless to say, it was the last of his special burgers to ever touch my lips.

He, however, makes them any chance he gets. And my mother eats them, too. I suspect she’s just humoring him in some vain hope that he’ll take a greater interest in cooking and thus relieve her of kitchen duty at least occasionally.

This, alas, has not been the case. Not that he doesn’t experiment in the kitchen, on occasion. These experiments, however, are limited strictly to new burger creations. You see, the raisins were kind of a “gateway” ingredient for him. He has since blasphemed burgers cranberries, apple pieces and who knows what else. I, for one, try not to pay attention.

I think of it as plausible deniability in case those burger police ever do show up.

When he heads to the kitchen to prep his now-infamous burgers, I make sure to specify that I want mine plain. And well done.

I try to ignore the eye roll.

Follow me on Twitter … @evesunmelissa.