Do you like yours with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes? Or maybe a big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer?
Whichever condiments and accompaniments you choose, if you're living in America, chances are you like hamburgers (or at least turkey burgers, or maybe veggie burgers).
There's a bit of debate about where the sandwich originated, but the hamburger has been feeding the masses since at least the early 1900s, according to seriouseats.com. No longer relegated to fast food joints, diners or family restaurants, the hamburger has risen through the ranks in the past decade, becoming a luxury treat carrying $100 price tags at upscale restaurants.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center instructor Jim Bumgarner prepares a special “Aussie burger.”
It's time to celebrate the iconic treat because May is National Hamburger Month, just in time for Memorial Day and backyard barbecues. The White Castle hamburger chain claims to have started National Hamburger Month in 1992.
"It's a food that employs iconic American ingredients. Dairy for cheese. Wheat for the bun and meat for the hamburger itself. It's a celebration of culinary and cultural identity," says John T. Edge, of Mississippi, food writer and author of "Hamburgers & Fries."
Hamburgers are more than just food for Americans. The burger ignites memories of summer, baseball and cookouts, says Jim Bumgarner, baking and pastry instructor at Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center.
"It's the ultimate comfort food," Bumgarner said. "I don't want to be all 'apple pie and baseball,' but if you think of burgers, you think of the local boys playing ball or backyard barbecues. It conjures up notions of childhood and gatherings of family."
A true hamburger must have certain qualities, according to Edge. It must be made of ground beef and served in an envelope of bread.
"I think it's a food that isn't just about the meat. It's about the package that includes breads, condiments and meats," Edge said.
Ground beef should not be too lean - at least 20 percent fat, Bumgarner said, and shouldn't be packed too tight.
"People do 90 percent lean and we call it a 'rain burger' - it's so dry you got to eat it in the rain," he said.
It's OK to incorporate other meats, like pork into ground beef, but most chefs will steer clear of fillings, such as bread crumbs. Bumgarner sometimes adds ground veal to the ground beef.
"I'm a purist," Bumgarner said. "I don't believe in bread crumbs or eggs. Some people might use it to bind it, but I think a good burger should be just meat."
Ideally, meat should be local and ground to order, Edge said, and the meat should not be over-handled or overcooked.
Many chefs don't overpower the meat with seasonings and spices, preferring simply salt and pepper. Grilling is the preferred mode of cooking hamburgers, though a flat iron skillet will do in the winter, Bumgarner said.
Bill Sell, chef and owner at Bill Sell's Bold in Altoona, seasons his meat with salt and pepper to not detract from the meat. He then tops the burgers with unique ingredients, such as chipotle mayo, Swiss cheese and prosciutto ham on the signature Bold burger.
In May, Sell will be rolling out 15 new hamburgers for National Hamburger Month - each with unique topping combinations. His favorite is the Santa Fe burger, topped with green chilies, crushed tortillas and pepper jack cream sauce.
How you prepare a hamburger should have a lot to do with where you live or grew up. Edge, who traveled the country eating hamburgers for his book, insists he doesn't have a favorite. Different areas of the country prepare their hamburgers uniquely and a good hamburger should have some local flare.
"I have situational crushes on a bunch of different burgers. I like eating local," Edge said. "That's the thing about hamburgers. It's the same thing with barbecue or fried chicken. The great beauty of all this is those are dishes embraced across the country. If you say hamburger in Altoona or San Fran, someone knows what you mean."
But, Edge continued, hamburgers can be cooked and prepared very differently across the country.
"Local traditions and local tastes are applied to food and you get great variants across the country," he said.
Instead of ketchup, Edge prefers mustard, pickles and onions on his hamburgers, but everyone's tastes are different.
Bumgarner's favorite hamburger is an Aussie burger. While he lived abroad for two years, Bumgarner became a fan of the Australian burger topped with sliced beets, fried eggs, ham, mushrooms and pineapples. The Knickerbocker offers a similar burger, which Bumgarner insists is "rockin.'"
Named the One-eyed Buck Burger the Knickerbocker tops this hamburger with cheddar cheese, fried egg, bacon, ham, lettuce, tomatoes and onion.
"They're a good size and the overall appearance is awesome," Knickerbocker's manager Heather McConahy said. "They take their time and make them look nice."
At the Old Canal Inn in Hollidaysburg, the Southwest burger is a favorite, topped with cheese, barbecue sauce, onion rings and bacon.
"That's really popular. The combination of barbecue sauce, bacon and onion rings give it a great texture and the burgers are nice and thick," Beth Wiesinger, waitress at Old Canal Inn said.
Molly Maguire's Pub in Altoona is proud of its Molly Burger, a half pound of ground beef topped with cooked onions, bacon and cheddar cheese.
"Then, on the bun, we put a blue cheese spread," said Cory Cloutier, bartender and cook at Molly Maguire's.
One of the perks of cooking hamburgers is they can be personalized and embellished, and even made gourmet.
In recent years, five-star restaurants have created their own versions of America's favorite food. Some are even topped with truffles or stuffed with foie gras and steak, hamburgers are capable of being fancy.
"For the longest time Americans have had this kind of chip on their shoulders that our national foods weren't worthy of white tablecloths," Edge said.
That has all changed, and these days anything goes with the hamburger.