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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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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