With our archive now containing over 3,500 articles, we’ve decided to republish a classic article every Sunday to help our new readers discover some of the best evergreen gems of the past. This article was originally published in September 2019.
Ernest Hemingway had a huge appetite for life. Whether it’s typing on his typewriter, deep-sea fishing off the Florida Keys, hunting from the mountains of the American West to the savannahs of Africa, or publishing news stories and even leading his own reconnaissance patrols on the front lines of war, he was inordinately talented hungry for a wide range of interests – and that included food itself.
Hemingway’s intimate connection with his food began early in his childhood. When he was just a young boy, his father introduced him to hunting and fishing activities, as well as their ethics: Ernest had to eat everything he killed. For most sportsmen, such a rule is convenient (and often delicious), especially when the game consists of rabbits, roe deer, elk and poultry, which Ernest ate with gusto; he had a particularly picky recipe for trout cooked over the campfire. Yet he kept his father’s rule of less common and cooked game in a practical way, consuming everything from porcupine to snake to lion.
While Dad found solace in nature, he also enjoyed the culinary comforts of civilization, like dining out and sipping fine wine or a refreshing daiquiri. His posthumous masterpiece, A moving party (1964), shows Ernest’s appreciation for the description of his meals. I remember serving this specific quote to my wife, to bring her to oyster joy:
As I ate the oysters with their strong sea flavor and slight metallic taste that the cold white wine took away, leaving only the sea flavor and luscious texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and l washed down with the crunchy taste of wine, I lost the feeling of emptiness and started to be happy and make plans.
And while not overly domestic, Hemingway sometimes cooked at home for himself and others; as a war correspondent, he was known to fry a pancake breakfast on a portable stove in his hotel room and invite fellow journalists to join in.
More often, however, he had his meals prepared by his household staff, based on recipes he had first meticulously tested and formulated himself. A batch of these resurfaced a decade ago, when in 2009 a trove of digitized documents made their way into the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Most of these documents came from Hemingway’s time in Cuba, a period of about twenty years when he produced some of his best literary books, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The old Man and the Sea.
While the majority of the details in this archival material were mundane, there was one particular document, made viral by The Parisian magazine, that even caught my eye: Dad’s favorite burger recipe.
I have long been a burger purist. My philosophy is well documented: use the best meat you can find, with a good fat to meat ratio, and season it with salt and pepper — nothing else. Gently build the burger into a loose patty and cook in a cast iron skillet to develop a nice char, with a medium-rare center.
So I have to say that I was a bit taken aback by Hemingway’s instructions for making his burgers: “ground beef, onions, garlic, Indian relish and capers, cooked so the edges are crispy but the center red and juicy”. Although the cooking technique seemed on point, I felt inundated with a slew of additional ingredients, some of which I naively deemed unnecessary.
Nevertheless, if there is one man who perhaps deserves immense trust, it is Hemingway himself. So I set about recreating his recipe, exactly as it was written, ingredients, instructions, and everything.
However, I inevitably ran into the same difficulties resurrecting this three-quarter-century-old burger formulation. One of the Spice Islands seasonings has since disappeared. And the taste of India? I checked my local store and online, and while it’s possible to stock up, it’s not easy. With my beers cold in the fridge and my wife dreaming of that burger, I figured it best to find the right substitute (included below). I felt less guilty for not following the recipe through, as Hemingway himself, or perhaps a family member, includes a whole host of other ingredients strewn across the page.
What resulted was honestly one of the best burgers I’ve had in my life. I’m not just saying that. Damn, my wife told me that was the best burger she ever had already had. The seasoned meat, when cooked exactly as described, provides a flavorful umami bomb of complexity, and the cooking juices from the burger are absorbed into the bun, rendering the condiments entirely unnecessary. I can see why such a well traveled, indulgent and imbibed man would go out of his way to create such pleasure. And like most of his work, I’m just glad he took the time to record it for others.
The recipe is quoted in its exact form below.and I added some placeholder notes after that.
How to Make Dad’s Favorite Burger
Experimentation, Papa’s Favorite Hamburger. There’s no reason for a fried burger to turn 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 Piccalilli, or whatever your eye fires up. Dad prefers this combination.
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- 2 minced garlic cloves
- 2 small green onions, finely chopped
- 1 heaping teaspoon Indian relish
- 2 tbsp capers
- 1 heaping teaspoon spiced island sage
- Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning — ½ tsp
- Spice Islands Mei Yen Powder – ½ tsp
- 1 egg, beaten in a cup with a fork
- About a third of a cup of dry red or white wine
- 1 tablespoon of cooking oil
Mash the meat with a fork and scatter the garlic, onion and dry seasonings over it, then stir them into the meat with a fork or your fingers.
Let the bowl of meat rest out of the cooler for ten to fifteen minutes while you set the table and prepare the salad. Add the relish, capers, everything else including the wine and leave the meat to rest, marinating slowly, for another ten minutes if possible.
Now make four fat and juicy patties with your hands. The patties should be an inch thick and soft but not runny in texture.
Have the oil in your frying pan hot but not smoking when you lay in the patties, then lower the heat and fry the burgers for about four minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and increase the heat again. Flip the burgers, return the pan to the hot heat, then after a minute, lower the heat again and cook for another three minutes. Both sides of the burgers should be crispy brown and the middle pink and juicy.
- Spice Islands discontinued its Mei Yen powder several years ago. I replaced with 1 tbsp. soy sauce, ½ tsp. kosher salt, ½ tsp sugar, combined and added to meat mixture.
- Other Spice Islands seasonings are still available. Le Beau Monde is a unique blend, but the sage can be substituted with any other good quality sage.
- Relish from India. You can indeed still get it online, but often in bulk and usually for a pretty penny (for a pot of relish). The taste is best described as right in the middle, not too sour or sweet. I’m personally a dill relish guy, so I just substituted it for my favorite dill relish and it turned out spectacular.
Matt Moore is a regular contributor to The Art of Manhood and the author of The best butts in the south.