The Burgers of My/Your/Our People

Old habits die hard. Old food habits die harder. Last night I made Grandma Burgers, a delicacy of my childhood that are so called because my grandmother makes them (and to differentiate them from regular burgers served on a bun). I could just as easily call them Belarussian Burgers, because my former roommate Hanna, who is from Minsk, makes them too. As it happens, Minsk is not all that far from the general area of the world where my grandmother’s family came from. In the grand scheme of things, I mean. Google says it’s about a 12-hour drive.

Or maybe they’re Ukranian Burgers, because my dad says that Grandma learned a lot of her cooking from my grandfather’s mother, who was from a different part of what is now Ukraine.

Either way, I like to think of Grandma Burgers–they’re like flattened meatballs cooked with onion in a skillet–as some sort of ancestral foodstuff, and I like that they’ve endured through a century or so of Canadian and American influences to end up on our dinner table in Massachusetts in 2010. I persist in this belief despite evidence that Grandma Burgers might be more universal. Jay’s mom used to make them, and she was of French-Canadian/probably English/generally Lowellian extraction.

So maybe they appear in multiple culinary cultures but had some particular appeal in working-class North America. You can’t stop me from eating pickles with my Grandma Burgers, though! THAT is Russian.

In the spirit of my grandmother’s cooking–and general approach to life–this is a more like a set of guidelines than a recipe. Do what feels right to you, and you’ll know when you have the recipe right (“Grandma, how much garlic should I chop?” “I don’t know, some. You’ll know how much.”).

My dad cooks these with the onions in the skillet exclusively and not in the burgers. Jay likes onions, and I think I remember them being in the burgers, and I’m pretty sure Hanna makes them this way, so I incorporate some of the onion into the burger mix.

Be careful with the heat on these. I had the skillet a little too hot last night, and the burgers got more, uh, crispy than I would usually like in spots.

And yes, you can eat your Grandma Burgers with ketchup.

Grandma Burgers

1 pound ground beef
1 egg
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced or garlic-pressed directly into the bowl
A few shakes bread crumbs (Full disclosure: I use a canister of Market Basket brand bread crumbs for this, and I am NOT ASHAMED. “Demoulas” is in the spirit of this type of cooking.)
salt and pepper to taste

Beat the egg in a medium bowl. Add other ingredients, reserving about half the onion, and mix with your hands to incorporate evenly.

Form meatballs about double the size of golf balls with your hands. It’s OK if an onion sticks out there and there or if the meatballs are generally rough.

Heat a skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat.* Add a small amount of oil (probably canola or vegetable) or cooking spray (what I use).

Add the burgers and the remaining onions to the skillet. Flatten the burgers slightly with a spatula/fork/wooden spoon/whatever implement you have handy and cook, about five minutes per side. The burgers should be cooked through and pleasingly browned but not burned. The onions will cook as much as they cook in the time it takes the burgers to cook.

Serve with potatoes and pickles and call it a day.

*There’s no reason not to own a cast-iron pan. I know they’re heavy and require some special care, but they’re so cheap and extremely versatile. Just don’t cook tomatoes in them because the acid will strip the seasoning and your tomato sauce will taste metallic.


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