After Nacho’s inspirational climb of the Alpe d’Huez we descended the switchbacks and were deposited in the quaint village of Bourg d’Oisans. We would spend the next few days making our way northwest to Paris, but before doing so we needed to grab a few odds and ends at the grocery store. We popped into town and found the nearest market, parked, and proceeded to drop essentials into the shopping cart. A medley of vegetables, a package of sausage and one of cheese, a fresh baguette—come on, we’re in France—a twelve pack of Leffe, and then we arrived at the discount bin containing marked down items nearing their expiration dates.
“Sweet baby Jesus, what’s that!” I could barely contain my excitement. “Why Sheena, I do say, it’s a package of nearly-expired, ground up dead horses!”
A few months back I had read something in the news about a shipment of meatballs from IKEA that were found to contain horse meat. If my memory serves me, it seems that I read this while voluntarily gorging myself on dead bugs in Thailand, and I had thought to myself, meh, if it has more than two legs then I say eat it. It was shortly thereafter that I read of the great outpouring of disgust, tears, blame, vomit, and anti-IKEA rhetoric from the horse-eating mouths of my countrymen, and I thought to myself, what a bunch of pansies.
But I had to wonder, not ever having eaten any horses myself, was there something vile about the taste of horse? Did those horse-eaters deserve my sympathy instead of my scorn? They eat it in France, so does that mean that French people are disgusting? We passed the package of ground up dead horses to the cashier who observed our choice with an admiring nod before sliding it away without further thought.
We left town and drove on through the Alps, the white mountaintops slowly drifting past our windows. As we approached the town of Annecy where the Alps meet the forested foothills I noticed a whooshing sound coming from the front wheels, and with it the sensation of driving on rough pavement. We’ve had a lot of failed wheel bearings on this trip, and it didn’t take long to figure out what was up. I also knew that I wouldn’t feel like taking care of it with a belly full of dead horses, so we drove through town and found a parking place on the waterfront of Annecy’s giant lake and I got out the tools and spare wheel bearings. When I removed the old bearing it became evident why it felt like we were driving on rough pavement—the bearing race was pitted like the surface of the moon. My stomach grumbled and I made haste as I packed the bearings and put the wheel assembly back together.
As the sun set on Annecy the runners finished their circuits, the rowers pulled their boats in, and the lakefront became serene. Inside of Nacho the fun was just beginning. When dinner involves copious amounts of meat I spring into action, and this time was no exception. Sheena sat cross-legged on the couch anxiously bouncing up and down with excitement, periodically yelping out words of encouragement.
“You should put capers in it! Pop of flavor! Oooh!”
“Sheena, my sweet, one thing you’ll learn about me as you get to know me better is that I need no instruction when it comes to burger making time. Entiendes?”
“Sorry, I’m just so hungry. Oooh! Are you going to use those roasted red peppers?”
“Silence! This is complicated!”
In a relationship men bring very little to the table, being that we’re emotionally shallow, generally poor listeners, usually wrong about most things, and we give off too much heat through our natural metabolism, rendering us unusable for prolonged spooning unless it’s winter time. Because of this, when we identify the rare thing that we are good at, and if that thing also benefits the relationship, we must seize it and nurture it. It is because of my dedication to Sheena that I take burger time very seriously.
I scoured the spice rack, cabinets and fridge for ingredients, knowing that even more than usual was at stake with this burger night. These burgers would be made not of cow, as is our tradition, but of dead horses, and the deliciousness of these burgers or lack thereof would either paint our IKEA-shopping countrymen as victims of a vile meatball bait-and-switch, or as a pack of modular-furniture-loving crybabies.
I’ve made hamburgers about a quadrillion times, allowing me to keep Sheena under my husbandly spell, but in an attempt to keep her from learning my secrets and making me redundant I never make the same burger twice. Sheena, stop reading here. Everyone else, here are the general guidelines for making winning burgers:
1. If you make your patties out of meat only, you become expendable.
2. Think of ground meat as concrete. Without aggregate, concrete is weak, and so are your burgers. Fill them with lots of little nuggets of goodness which will accent the flavor and make your spouse think you’re like some kind of Wolfgang Puck or something.
3. When picking aggregate, choose a few things that naturally go well together. Maybe you noticed your wife has been listening to a lot of Enrique Iglesias and you want to capitalize on that, so mix in finely diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro and hot chilies. Maybe you just watched Under the Tuscan Sun and you want to seem sensitive and in-tune, so mix in pine nuts, basil and garlic. Does she listen to country music? Use diced apples, bacon and some Worcestershire sauce. The possibilities are endless.
4. Your wife won’t totally believe that you know what you’re doing unless she sees you sprinkling spices on stuff. Fortunately, spices are an essential ingredient to winning burgers. Simply pick the spices that naturally accent the motif that you’re trying to convey with your burgers and then add it in. Enrique Iglesias? Add chili powder and cumin. Under the Tuscan Sun? Maybe some dried rosemary or oregano. I know those last two are herbs, not spices, but you’ll still be sprinkling things, and that’s the key.
5. Always add salt. Do you know why junk food tastes like crack cocaine? It’s because it’s full of salt. I’m not saying that your burgers will be junk food, but they will taste like crack cocaine. Add as much salt as you think is necessary, and then add a little more. It’s an electrolyte, after all, and electrolytes promote the passage of fluid through cell walls, ensuring that your lady will stay both hydrated and addicted to your burgers.
6. Add some olive oil to the mix. When you do, be sure to start out with the bottle close to the bowl, and lift it way up into the air as you pour. The reason you pour it this way is, you guessed it, to make it look like you know what you’re doing. The olive oil, by the way, will keep your burgers from sticking to the pan or grill. It will also add antioxidants to your burgers, which will help to neutralize free radicals in your wife’s body, making her healthy and giving her a shiny pelt.
7. You’ve added a bunch of stuff to your bowl, and at this point you’re headed down the road of embarrassment and rejection on account of your burgers are going to fall apart. This is where the secret weapon comes in: eggs. Add one egg to the bowl for every three or four burgers. This will add a little bit of richness and depth of flavor, and will also act as a magic glue to hold everything together when heat is applied. Don’t let your wife see you add the eggs, for it is the omission of this step that will prevent her from succeeding when she attempts to copy you. You. Are. The. Only one in this house that can make such off the hook burgers.
8. Always add cheese. The sharper and/or footier the better, as a general rule. Even if your subjects say they don’t want cheese, add it anyway. Some people just don’t know what’s best for them.
9. Sometimes you want to mix things up a little, try something new. Maybe you’ve impressed your family so many times that your unprecedented skill at burger making has become the “new normal” and you need a secret weapon to take it to the next level. Something that will make her stare at you with those big doe eyes and that ketchup-mustard smile. This is where the “Pop of Flavor” comes in. POFs are little nuggets that pack a disproportionate amount of flavor for their size, which, when bitten, will cause an unexpected little squirt of endorphins to enter the bloodstream. These include (and match them to your burger motif accordingly) capers, dried cranberries, dried blueberries, pickled jalapeños, sundried tomatoes, the list goes on. Just use your imagination and don’t be scared. Black licorice? Hell, why not?
10. Never, ever press the burgers while they’re cooking. You want a juicy, flavorful burger, not a dry, flat meat wafer. Turn the heat up high and sear the burger on both sides to seal in the juices, and then turn the heat down and cook, flipping only once, until it’s cooked to no more than medium. Medium-rare is great too. A little raw meat never killed anyone, right?
11. Last but not least are the toppings. If you’re going to use mustard, use a nice spicy brown mustard, not the yellow stuff. If you’re adding onions or mushrooms, sauté them until they’re a little soft. Don’t use iceberg lettuce. Your wife read in her magazine that iceberg lettuce has no measurable nutritional value, and you’ll seem like a more attentive listener if you use something hip like red romaine or micro greens.
Sheena watched from the comfort of the couch with admiring eyes as I diced stuff, sprinkled things, sampled raw materials for quality control, poured olive oil from really high up, and cracked eggs (we live in a van, so there are no secrets any more). When everything was added to the bowl I pressed my hands into it and let the cold, dead horse meat squirt between my fingers with chunks of this and that, a little smear of yellow yolk here and there, until it formed a heterogeneous paste. I slapped the paste into patties like a Mexican tortilla lady and put them to the heat. Some French bread, local cheese, sautéed onions, roasted red peppers, specialty mustard, and a bottle of regional beer rounded it out.
When it was all over we sat on the couch unconsciously massaging our horse-filled bellies.
“Horses taste a lot like cows,” Sheena said.
“That is true. I hope it’s not long before we can eat more of them.” I swigged the last of my drink and set my glass on the table.
“You’re pretty neat,” she said. It was all the reassurance I needed that my place in the kitchen remained solid.
“Thanks,” I said. “You know, those meatball people back home are a bunch of pansies.”