Malcolm Jolley is let down by another holiday hamburger.
The last time I fastened the Thule on the Subaru, strapped in the family and departed on our latest Griswoldesque adventure, I was moved to write about a burger. In this case it was from a rapidly growing Canadian chain that at least appeared to be trying to some things right for a fast food company. I was ultimately disappointed with my experience dining with them, especially their very sweet, processed bun, but had to grant them some points for transparencies and better than industry average sourcing practices. Several months, and a change in season, I’ve hit the road again this week, only to be once again disappointed and confounded by a hamburger on my holidays.
This week my family and another have rented a cottage on a small, landlocked lake near Parry Sound. It’s very pretty, and we’re having a good time. Yesterday (Sunday) was our first full day and we decided to drive into to town to check it out and have lunch. I remembered that there was a restaurant near the harbour with a large veranda where you could sit outside and enjoy the scenery. We got to town, parked our cars on the main street, explored it a bit and then walked down to the waterfront and found the place I had remembered, arriving sometime between 1:30 and 2.
The weekend lunch service was busy and it took some jostling to seat us, since we’re a pretty big group: four adults and five kids, including two teenagers. The staff was friendly and helpful and helped us split into two tables (kids at one, adults at the other, with two cheques as they were in different sections). While some decry the purchase of Creemore Springs by Molson’s some years I ago, I do not (as famously does not Jamie) since it means that you can often get a decent beer from a set of taps dominated by the otherwise industrial brewer. This was the case where we were, which I took as a good sign, and we settled into our menus, which had a dedicated page to their “famous” burgers, or words to that effect. The burger section of the menu even had a sort of key to how one could order one’s burger, where medium-rare meant dark pink, and so on. I took these as encouraging signs, and ordered their “signature burger”, really just a banquet burger, but again I thought it was a good sign that the menu writer was putting the restaurant’s name, and therefore reputation, next to the burger. If, I reasoned, I owned a not too big independent casual restaurant next to the harbour, with waterfront views and cold Creemore Springs Lager on tap, then surely I would want my signature burger to be the best burger around, right?
The first sign that things might not be going where I was hoping they would was on the plate, next to my burger and fries: a solitary small packet each of generic mustard and relish. Ketchup was at least Heinz and came in a plastic bottle on the table, and when I asked for mayonnaise it was Hellman’s and I was given lots of packets. The second sign was the appearance of the burger itself, or lack thereof under the bun. You couldn’t see it, which made my heart sink a bit and reminded me of the lady in those old ‘Where’s the beef?’ ads for Wendy’s. But, the die had been cast, and this was the burger I ordered and now it was after two o’clock and I was hungry, so I ate it.
When I grew-up my mum had name for kind of burger I had with my lovely cold beer and beautiful bay view. She taught me to refer to them as chipmunk burgers. Now our so-called chipmunk burgers aren’t probably actually made with chipmunk meat, so it’s not an entirely fair moniker since I also haven’t actually eaten chipmunk meat otherwise and don’t have a true baseline off of which to compare. But the term does accurately drive home the point that these kinds of burgers do not in any way, shape or form adhere to any experience of beef that could be verified as actually coming from a cow, steer or bull. The burger I had is not resemble anything, in texture or taste, that I have prepared for myself at home, or occasionally dine on at my local pub. What ever was in that burger may or may not have been part of a bovine being. (Google ‘Finely Textured Meat’ or ‘Pink Slime’, but only if you’re not contemplating a meal within the next hour or so.) I will say that I ate the burger; all of it, every last bite. I was really hungry, and while it didn’t bring me much pleasure, it did bring up some nostalgiac memories of late 1970s and early 1980s institutional food and it wasn’t repellent or disgusting in the true sense of the word. It had a crunchy crust and a soft interior, and it tasted mostly of salt and some vague meat or meat-like quality. So, the emotion this chipmunk burger brought on me was less revulsion and more disappointment and curiosity.
My chipmunk burger in paradise cost $15 before tax and tip. Not crazy expensive (it had cheese and bacon, after all), but not exactly cheap either. I looked around at the clientele at the restaurant, and they looked pretty well healed to me, like you’d expect in the middle of Georgian Bay cottage country. There’s a couple in their twenties who have arrived by boat and probably snuck out for lunch from one of their parents’ cottage. Here’s a middle-aged couple with their two kids, one of which is wearing sweatshirt with the name and crest of a fancy Toronto private school on it’s front. Over there is a foursome of retirees, who may or may not be on their way back from a morning of playing golf. The parking in front of the restaurant was a reliable mix of German and Japanese SUV’s. You’d think any of these people would be willing to spring a few more bucks for a burger that was recognizably made of beef?
I didn’t get it, and I still don’t. Well not all of it, anyway. One thing I get, or am pretty sure of, is that everything on my plate, and my wife’s and friends’ plates, probably came out the back of the same truck. Efficiencies were being achieved and savings were being made. Was the restaurant simply trying to survive in an environment where there weren’t may options outside of the silver trailer? Was rent higher than I imagined because of the view? Did the seasonal nature of the business make more cut throat than usual? Or were the well healed diners mostly simply cheap ignoramuses who either didn’t know from good food or didn’t care? Hell, maybe they prefer chipmunk burgers? Maybe my poor restaurateur had dedicated that burger section of his or her menu because they had tried to serve real food that could actually be served at medium-rare and show dark pink, but had been rebuffed for daring to set them at a $18 or $19 price point and brought to the brink of bankruptcy by their folly. Perhaps this is what it looks like when the good food counter-revolution comes. Never again, maybe they thought, as they ticked the box next to chipmunk burgers on the form from their supplier, who uses the word “system” in its corporate name, through a veil of their own tears while scolding a server for placing two mustard packs on some cheap jerk’s plate. Maybe they cry themselves to sleep while dreaming of Chez Panisse and a less cruel world where people wouldn’t just expect decent food at every meal but might even demand it. Or, maybe I’m just a stuck-up bourgeois effete and food snob who doesn’t understand the world outside of his downtown Toronto bubble.
I’ll never know, because I will be making my own burgers for the rest of the week.