Fingers deep, I kneaded. Fighting the urge to be careless and quick, I kept the pace rhythmic, slow. Each squeeze, I hoped, would gently ease the flavors—knobby bits of garlic, finely chopped capers, smatterings of dry spices—into the marbled mound before me.
I had made burgers before, countless times on countless evenings. This one was different; I wasn’t making just any burger—I was attempting to recreate Hemingway’s hamburger. And it had to be just right.
My quest had begun in May when I read a newspaper story about two thousand newly digitized documents of Ernest Hemingway’s personal papers in Cuba finally wending their way to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. This was the second batch of Hemingway papers to arrive from his home in Cuba, where he lived from 1939 to 1960, and wrote numerous stories and the celebrated novels For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.
In his Havana home—Finca Vigía, or “Lookout Farm,” a large house and sprawling tropical gardens filled with mango and almond trees—between tapping out books like A Moveable Feast (while standing up at his typewriter), he also enjoyed dining well and entertaining. The ubiquitous Hemingway Daiquiri, after all, comes from his time in Havana, when he wandered into the El Floridita bar, had his first taste of a daiquiri, then ordered another with no sugar—and double the rum. (So the story goes, anyway.)
As both a food writer and Hemingway acolyte, I had long been aware of his immense appetites—for life, adventure, drink, and a good meal. So it wasn’t surprising that one line in this article should strike me: “The more mundane, like his instructions to the household staff, including how to prepare his hamburgers: ground beef, onions, garlic, India relish, and capers, cooked so the edges were crispy but the center red and juicy.” Hemingway’s idea of a perfect hamburger? I had to try it.
While I may have found this fascinating, the interesting thing about the latest set of Hemingway’s Cuba papers is how conventionally uninteresting they are. “The first batch of papers (donated to the J.F.K. Library in 2009) were what folks may have considered more scholarly—galley proofs of his books, correspondence with his editors, that sort of work,” said Mary-Jo Adams, executive director of the Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation, the non-profit that has been working with Museum Hemingway at Finca Vigía to preserve his documents and bring copies of them up to the United States. “This group is more personal—it’s less significant, depending on your perspective … copies of his passports, bills that he paid, automobile insurance, his good driver discount—things that put together the fabric of who the man was past his writing.”
Among these papers (many of them written in Spanish), however, is a treasure trove of lists, recipes, and writings that intimately illustrate his appetites and involvement in temporal minutiae. “He was meticulous in all ways, deeply involved in every detail of daily life and very attuned to what kinds of foods he wanted to have served,” says Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, who has seen the papers.
On avocados: “We like avocados but we don’t want them every day. … When you serve an avocado, do not also serve tomatoes, radishes, or peppers. The avocado is enough for us.”
On the Hemingway cow: “All milk is to be used for the cats.”
A recipe for soup lists abalone, bean curd, smoked turkey, clam broth, onion, and shredded lettuce as ingredients. Instructions for Chinese vegetables have words underlined for emphasis and advise using “poco” soy sauce.
An April, 1957 order to Maison Glass, a gourmet emporium in New York City, requests that tins of whole guinea hen, whole pheasant, cèpes, and lobster bisque along with dozens of jars of preserves such as rose petal jelly and pricey bar le duc be sent to Finca Vigía “by Air Express as you usually do.”
Some of these writings are typed out on Collier’s magazine letterhead and filled in with handwritten corrections and notes, Spanier said. And among them, she added, is a note in Spanish, written by Hemingway, but in the voice of his fourth wife Mary Hemingway, saying, in effect, “Please try to understand these instructions. They’re given knowing your goodwill in working hard to shop and cook well. If there’s something that you don’t understand or some problem, explain it to me and not to Mr. Hemingway, who has enough problems of his own in his work as a writer.”
Hemingway’s appetites naturally took their toll. In his last five years at Finca Vigía, he became preoccupied with his weight and blood pressure, recording both readings everyday in pencil on his bathroom wall. “It did fluctuate,” Adams said. “Sometimes he would write a word (next to a number) indicating there was a party or some reason for the fluctuation.”
Among his papers, the burger that captured my imagination was one of his more pedestrian recipes—it was no vichyssoise or white grape soup. But I needed to taste it.
It started off simply enough: ground beef, India relish, capers, and green onions, mixed with various spices, egg, and wine. (The recipe is very specific about the brand of spices; Spice Islands appeared to be the Hemingway spice brand of choice.)
Mei Yen powder, however, tripped me up. Perhaps it was a popular spice in the 1950s but in 2013, it was nowhere to be found; it turns out it was discontinued three years ago. But after some conferring with the good people at Spice Islands, I had a recipe for recreating that.
And so I began. First, I broke up the meat, scattering the garlic, onion and dry seasonings over it. After letting that rest for a smidgen, I added the relish, capers, wine, and all else and let that “sit, quietly marinating.” The smell of spices, garlic, capers, meat, and wine slowly perfumed the air of my tiny kitchen.
Hemingway liked his burgers pan-fried, not grilled. So, out came the pan. The heady scent of charred beef tinged with sage, garlic, and celery seed rapidly became unbearable. I could not wait to eat. By the time the burger was “crispy brown and the middle pink and juicy” my pangs were palpable.
The burger was delicious: each bit of it oozed a complex and textured umami, earthy and deep. I had never experienced such a combination of flavors in a burger before and found myself eating far too quickly. But then I remembered a line I loved in A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway describes going to Brasserie Lipp in Paris for a meal.
“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. … After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly.”
And so, I did the same. I took a sip of my cool Sancerre and slowly, I ate.
PAPA’S FAVORITE HAMBURGER. There is no reason why a fried hamburger has to turn out gray, greasy, paper-thin and tasteless. You can add all sorts of goodies and flavors to the ground beef — minced mushrooms, cocktail sauce, minced garlic and onion, chopped almonds, a big dollop of piccadilli, or whatever your eye lights on. Papa prefers this combination.
1 lb. ground lean beef
2 cloves, minced garlic
2 little green onions, finely chopped
1 heaping teaspoon, India relish
2 tablespoons, capers
1 heaping teaspoon, Spice Islands sage
Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning — ½ teaspoon
Spice Islands Mei Yen Powder — ½ teaspoon **
1 egg, beaten in a cup with a fork
About one third cup dry red or white wine.
1 tablespoon cooking oil
What to do —
Break up the meat with a fork and scatter the garlic, onion and dry seasonings over it, then mix them into the meat with a fork or your fingers. Let the bowl of meat sit out of the icebox for ten or fifteen minutes while you set the table and make the salad. Add the relish, capers, everything else including wine and let the meat sit, quietly marinating, for another ten minutes if possible. Now make four fat, juicy patties with your hands. The patties should be an inch thick, and soft in texture but not runny. Have the oil in your frying-pan hot but not smoking when you drop in the patties and then turn the heat down and fry the burgers about four minutes. Take the pan off the burner and turn the heat high again. Flip the burgers over, put the pan back on the hot fire, then after one minute, turn the heat down again and cook another three minutes. Both sides of the burgers should be crispy brown and the middle pink and juicy.
** Spice Islands discontinued its production of Mei Yen Powder three years ago. If you don’t have any in your pantry, here’s how to recreate it:
9 parts salt
9 parts sugar
2 parts MSG
If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon Mei Yen Powder, use 2/3 tsp of the dry recipe (above) mixed with 1/8 tsp of soy sauce.
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is the New York City-based author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family (Hyperion, 2011). She is working on her first novel and is the editor of Singapore Noir, a fiction anthology that Akashic will publish in 2014. She was a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Food & Wine, among other publications. She has been an artist in residence at Yaddo, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Studios of Key West, and the Ragdale Foundation.