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