Every Saturday night as long as they lived, my mother's family had hamburgers for dinner. She and her siblings, spread across three states and half the continent, served their families hamburgers. Skillet-fried in winter, grill-fired in summer.
My sister and I grew up thinking that everyone had hamburgers on Saturday -- and maybe we weren't so far wrong.
The history of hamburgers is the history of post-World War II America. Humble origins among fry cooks in diners. Car-hops for the newly social. Drive-ins for the newly mobile. Home grills for the newly affluent. Franchises for the newly entreprenurial. Worldwide empires for the newly international.
And, as Americans' tastes have become more sophisticated, thanks to new waves of immigrants and more foreign travel, the basic burger has gotten more worldly as well. Today's "hamburg sandwich" might be made of emu, duck or salmon. It might be dressed with salsa, marinated in soy sauce, stuffed with cheese or laced with peanut butter.
Who would know better than Ronald L. McDonald -- the real one -- a Florida resident and scion of the real McDonalds, who created what is possibly the most famous family restaurant concept of the 20th century?
"Who would have guessed that hamburgers would be such an international phenomenon?" McDonald mused from a New York hotel where he was giving interviews to promote his new book, "The Complete Hamburger: The History of America's Favorite Sandwich" (Birch Lane Press, 1997, $18.95).
"I've eaten emu burgers and ostrich burgers. Turkey is big, and textured soy protein." McDonald has traveled the world with his food-consulting business, and everywhere he goes, "people say, gotta try this, this place serves them on English muffins, with this kind of cheese, or in pita pockets -- I'm always interested. When I was in South America I had a tapir burger -- whew, it smelled so bad I could barely eat it. But it tasted good."
He's also sampled hamburgers of buffalo, moose, venison and alligator. "I have a cast-iron stomach," he said, modestly.
Even in upscale restaurants, everyone loves those burgers.
"We sell a surprising amount," said Michael Gettier, of M. Gettier's Orchard Inn in Towson. Even though he offers them only on the bar menu, "some people come in two or three times a week for hamburgers," he said. "And it seems to be picking up."
The M. Gettier version is a traditional half-pound of quality ground beef, wood-fired and served with tomato, lettuce and a "really yummy" kosher pickle -- most people like it with bacon as well -- but he's planning to add vegetarian burgers to the menu soon.
At Mr. Picnic, Peerce's Plantation's casual catering arm, one recent event featured vegetable burgers, said Drew Sinnott, catering director. "There are wonderful fresh vegetables this time of year," he said. Even for traditional burgers, he said, condiments have gotten a little more sophisticated. "We do a whole-grain mustard, and a Dijon mustard. And we use vine-ripened tomatoes, and a slice of [sweet] Vidalia onion."
Hamburgers are absolutely a favorite request for summer events, he said. "We do hundreds, thousands of them."
Marcel Desaulniers, the Williamsburg, Va., chef most noted for his "Desserts to Die For," is also a burger aficionado, and he wrote a book to prove it: "Burger Meisters: America's Best Chefs Give Their Recipes for America's Best Burgers, Plus the Fixin's" (Simon & Schuster, 1993, $20).
Burger variations include the blues burger, with Maytag blue cheese; the provolone ranger burger on focaccia; the Southern-fried chicken burger with honey-mustard mayonnaise; and the Plymouth turkey burger with cranberry relish.
"Contemporary American chefs have staked a claim in culinary history by revitalizing -- not reinventing -- American regional foods," Desaulniers writes in the introduction. "Likewise, their burgers have been inspired by regional and ethnic pantries as well as local lifestyles." The chefs reflect their customers' preferences, Desaulniers writes. "The food most widely proclaimed as the choice away from work is a burger."
"I love burgers," said Barry Fleischmann, of Innovative Gourmet of Owings Mills. "We do some grill parties," where he serves his signature burger: flavored with Worcestershire sauce, roasted garlic puree, Dijon mustard, fresh cracked pepper and salt. "And, of course, beautiful Maryland tomatoes."
Ronald McDonald, whose life has been bounded by hamburgers, loves them still. "If I didn't get a hamburger steak weekly, that week would be wasted," he said. "Sometimes I revert to my childhood and eat four or five hamburger steaks a week," he said. "I think that hamburgers will always be around."
So, when you fire up the grill this weekend, you can take the traditional route and know you're in good company. Or you can add a little bit of the world to your holiday table to celebrate the marvelous mixing bowl that characterizes American culinary culture.