It was a burger in New York that ended my nine years of vegetarianism, five of them as a vegan. Apt enough, because the burger has done more to turn eating meat into a regular meal than any other dish. My Jewish host insisted I have a bacon burger with cheese and pickles; otherwise, it was like going to Rome and missing the Coliseum, he said.
I’m not sure what it was exactly that made me, in that moment, overcome my revulsion of red meat. Perhaps because visiting New York back in those days was part of a broader, wilder adventure — his neighbour had just been murdered in the apartment next door.
The burger was delicious, nothing like anything I’d ever been offered back home. The bun was lightly toasted. It was tall and messy. I wonder whether the humble burger started the craze for stacking food?
“South African!” said my host. “Put down that fork and knife.”
My table manners were embarrassing him. You wouldn’t lick your fingers, but even in this fairly upmarket restaurant one was expected to use hands when it came to eating burgers. It’s the only practical way to get to grips with the thing.
It’s really a sandwich. Based on the eponymously named creation of the fourth Earl of Sandwich remade American style, the burger was probably invented in the 1880-1890s near Chicago, surmises Andrew F Smith, author of Hamburger: A Global History (2008).
Where the English had cucumber and delicate slices of roast beef, the Americans placed a thick, roasted patty of ground beef.
In the battle between the ranchers’ lobby and the pig farmers of the United States, the burger played its role in spreading the wonders of beef. There were even laws passed forbidding pig fat in burgers. Which is why the word “hamburger” initially confuses some.
It originates with Hamburg steak, which in the late 19th century was believed to be the best gourmet beef brand. But by World War I the German connotation was elided with the misnomer “Salisbury steaks”, the way French fries briefly became freedom fries after 9/11.
With the rise of industrial agriculture and unprecedentedly cheap meat, families no longer ate meat once or twice a week. The burger must take responsibility (or credit, depending on your view).
Once the conveyor-belt approach of mass assembly was applied to the restaurant, the fast-food chain was born and burgers conquered the world.
In Italy you won’t find Starbucks, but McDonalds abound; there are two within metres of the Spanish Steps. There is a McDonalds in the basement of the Louvre.
But those industrial patties that look like someone sat on them don’t cut it for many of us. The secret of the great burger is, of course, the quality of the meat. Mincing your own at home from a well-marbled bottom sirloin produces the best patty and the best way to cook it, in my experience, is on the braai. This summer, forget the lamb chops, and try a burger on the grid.
Long popular in South Africa, in the past few years burgers seem to be having an African Renaissance of sorts. Cape Town has seen a spate of “gourmet burger” establishments trying to reinvent the humble patty. The Royale Eatery in Long Street was one of the first of these trendy burger joints, offering not only beef versions but also ostrich, Karoo lamb and even pork between buns.
Nearby is another great spot for casual dining on trendy burgers — the idiosyncratic Lola’s. It used to be a hangout for transvestites, Dutch tourists, Bohemians and the great unwashed backpacker brigade. It also used to be vegetarian, but since it had a makeover has started serving burgers.
Film-crew types and the concomitant sagging pants and exposed underwear crowd have hung on. Smoke drifts in from the outside tables. The jumbled clientele lends much charm. The wild-boar cheese burger with chips stacked like Jenga pieces is novel, yet loyal to what makes for a great burger.
For the trendiest burger in town go to hipster hangout Clarke’s with its American diner-inspired menu and late-night hours (open until 2am, Wednesdays to Saturdays).
It is the only Cape Town restaurant I know of that has tables and counter spaces marked stammtisch — a forewarning that these are preferred tables for regular guests and you may be asked to move.
The clean, white, hardy space nonetheless has a design feel, with bare, oversized lightbulbs and abundant pot plants that make for pleasant displays.
The burger here is made with premium beef from Bill Riley and out of the ordinary, tasty brioche buns from Trevor Daly, served with homemade slap chips in a paper-lined basket.
The patty itself lacks the caramelized meat exterior, but it is very juicy with a satisfying fat content. If you don’t like it rare you must tell the waiter. Based on several experiences you won’t be asked how you like it done and it will come bloody. Perhaps hipsters enjoy this in the small hours when out on their own wild nocturnal adventures.
No need to go to America anymore.
Clarke’s Bar and Dining Room, 133 Bree Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 7648
Lola’s, 228 Long Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 423 0885
Royale Eatery, 273 Long Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 422 4536
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 11, 2013.