Cooking My Way to Mr. Beard Entry #16: Beard Burger Bar

An occasional blog by Nick Olcott

September 4, 2012

As I mentioned before, the books on grilling that I’d ordered before I left for Nova Scotia were waiting for me when I got home. I got Cook it Outdoors (1941) and Barbecue with Beard (1975), which  turns out to include recipes from James Beard’s Complete Book of Barbecue and Rotisserie Cooking (1954) and James Beard’s Barbecue Cookbook (1958). (This is why it’s so hard to say how many cookbooks Mr. Beard wrote: he produced so many, and so many of the recipes keep turning up in different books under different titles.)

The 1941 book is really interesting because it reveals how very new a phenomenon outdoor cooking was at the time. The opening chapter is about how to build a huge brick kitchen outside. Only later does the book mention the “one or two portable grills on wheels” that one can find in “good cooking equipment houses.” I guess hardware stores in 1941 didn’t have rows and rows of Weber kettles.

The span of years these books reflect (1941-1975) also shows what a lasting impact outdoor cooking has had on American eating. And James Beard was definitely at the forefront of that. It’s funny to think that what he learned as a boy from his mother at picnics on the Oregon beach turned him into “Jim Beard, the King of the Barbecue,” the outdoor man credited with making it acceptable for ordinary guys to be interested in cooking.

I can’t say the books have actually given me new recipes. Most of them are pretty obvious, and many repeat things in American Cookery. Plus, a lot of them are about rotisserie cooking over the fire. I remember from my childhood what a big fad that was. The “modern” house we moved into in the 1960’s was a classic suburban rambler, complete with an enclosed patio that had a built-in grill equipped with an electric-powered rotisserie. I think it was the first thing the real estate agent showed us. No one seems to have those anymore.

I’ve really had time for only one Beard Feast since returning from Nova Scotia. But it was a doozie: I hosted a Beard Burger Bar at our neighborhood’s annual Labor Day picnic. Let’s just say, I’m now a popular guy around here.

Here are the burgers I had to offer to my neighbors:

James Beard’s Favorite Hamburger (Beard on Food, page 2)
(containing onion, cream, black pepper, cooked in butter and oil)

Hamburger Au Poivre (Beard on Food, page 3)
(covered in crushed black peppercorns and flambéed in bourbon)

Cheese Hamburgers (Barbecue with Beard, page 29)
(containing shredded Cheddar, chopped onion and Worcestershire in the burger,
wrapped with a strip of bacon)

Savory Hamburgers (Barbecue with Beard, page 29)
(containing chopped onion, olive slices, and mushroom powder,
available with or without anchovies)

and, for the unadventurous

Plain Hamburgers (Barbecue with Beard, page 28)

First, let me say that I suggested that each diner promise to buy a pair of tickets to the show for every burger I gave out, but I didn’t actually require proof of purchase. I don’t know if that will work, but people seemed pretty enthusiastic about the show. Or maybe just about the burgers.

Second, let me say that bacon seems to be everyone’s favorite food. The Cheese Hamburgers were the first to go, and it wasn’t the Cheddar that was getting people’s attention. I must admit, it is one tasty burger. The bacon also contracts around the burger as it cooks, so it makes for a perfectly round and very picturesque patty. My Cheese Hamburgers looked like photographs from a magazine spread as they came off the grill.

Third, I need to point out that not many people take to the idea of anchovies on a burger. Only one person took me up on the Savory Burger with anchovies, but she had the same experience that I did: it’s really only a good way to get a nice jolt of salt inside the burger.

Fourth, James Beard’s Favorite Hamburger is really, really good. The cream, butter, and oil, however, make it abundantly clear why he had the health problems he did. It should come with a prescription for statin.

Fifth, flambéing on the grill with bourbon is a great way to get attention at a picnic.

Last, I have to report that the secret tip for “a juicier and more flavorful hamburger” that I will reveal in the performances of I Love To Eat does indeed work. It produces a hamburger that is lovely and crisp on the outside and perfectly medium rare on the inside. The trouble is, I discovered, most people in my neighborhood don’t like their hamburgers medium rare. It was a little disappointing to have so many perfect burgers being brought back for additional cooking, but I bowed to public taste.

I really did feel like Mr. Beard at the picnic yesterday. I realized how much fun cooking for other people is, and how much delight it gives one to see pleasure and surprise on their faces when they bite into something delicious. As I will say in the play, “Entertaining is just about being yourself, enjoying your role as host.” Yesterday, I experienced that for real.

And after eating five burgers, one of each type, I went to bed feeling like Mr. Beard must have done on many an occasion. I definitely know that sensation now.

Just one more entry in Nick’s journey to “become James Beard.”

I Love to Eat, with Nick Olcott as James Beard, is onstage at Round House Bethesda thru November 4.

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