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Felicity Cloake: Recreating Ernest Hemingway’s favourite burger

The original calls for garlic, spring onion, piccalilli, capers and wine, plus two American spice blends, parsley, grated apple, Cheddar and carrots, shredded ham, soy sauce and tomato.

Ernest Hemingway was a man firmly of the belief that “living well is the best revenge” – just check out the evocative descriptions of oysters and crisp white wine in his memoir A Moveable Feast for proof. But a recent release of papers from his Cuban estate shows that he never entirely lost the tastes of his Illinois childhood: in fact, some of the leanest prose in 20th-century American literature was fuelled by some unashamedly fatty patties.

His fourth wife, Mary, divulged the juicy details to the Woman’s Day Encyclopaedia of Cookery, explaining that she cooked up these particular burgers “to fortify us for tramping through sagebrush after pheasant, partridge, or ducks, or, after such hikes, to console us for not having shot our limits”. (You didn’t picture Ernest wearing an apron, did you?)

Papa’s appetites in no way matched the spareness of his prose. The recipe adds “all sorts of goodies” to the standard minced-beef base with “a gusto that’s very characteristic” of the great man, according to Sandra Spanier, general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project.

The original, available online for anyone who wants to pay homage to this giant of good living, calls for garlic, spring onion, India relish (piccalilli), capers and wine, plus two American spice blends by the name of Beau Monde seasoning and Mei Yen powder, which turn out to consist largely of salt, sugar and monosodium glutamate, with celery and onion powder thrown in for good measure. Not, with the exception of the salt, things I’d usually include, but hey, Hemingway knows best – and by the time I have mentally factored in the parsley, grated apple, Cheddar and carrots, shredded ham, soy sauce and tomato hastily scribbled in the margins of the typescript, it’s looking more like an all-you-can-eat buffet than a burger anyway.

The instructions that follow offer a taste of Mary’s own skill as a writer – she met Hemingway in wartime Paris through her work as a correspondent for Time magazine, and even here it shows. Lines such as “let the meat sit, quietly marinating, for . . . ten minutes if possible” before shaping it into “four fat, juicy patties with your hands” get my mouth watering as Delia Smith never could. But what of the results? It was time to find out.

Frustratingly, as I’m always looking for an excuse to fire up the barbecue, the Hemingways preferred their burgers fried rather than grilled, Mary issuing very precise timings to achieve perfection: “both sides . . . crispy brown, and the middle pink and juicy”.

Unfortunately, one of the people I’ve invited round to assess Hemingway’s taste in minced meat is eight and a half months pregnant (two tasters for the price of one!), so only half the burgers would get the thumbs-up from Papa himself. But both versions are devoured by my daiquiri-happy panel, who can’t stop saying the word “juicy” even as the evidence drips from their mouths. All that cheese, soy sauce and, yes, MSG makes them deliciously savoury, while the wine adds a tannic depth. I have to admit it, they’re pretty tasty.

The old man and his patties aren’t getting off that easily, though. The lady with child claims the grated carrot makes the burger look “like something you’d find on the pavement” (and she hasn’t had a sniff of rum). Someone else reckons that the flavour reminds them of “an old pie” (they had).

Final verdict? It’s a good burger – because it’s a dishonest burger. The kind of stripped-back patty I’d have expected of Hemingway would be dull as hell. He may have boasted that the baroque was dead in literature but I’m pleased to say it wasn’t in his kitchen. One of these, in a bun, proves a moveable feast indeed. 

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood