“Hamburgers and Hotdogs” isn’t a meal; it’s a declaration of indifference. When someone asks “What can I bring?” the answer is too often: “We’re just doing hamburgers and hotdogs, so bring whatever.” In other words, so generic and casual is this thing we are hosting, that should you turn up late, drunk and empty-handed, it won’t matter. I feel this is a shame; hamburgers and hotdogs deserve a more respectable seat in the pantheon of authentic foods.
The prevalence of deeply processed, bland and generic versions is responsible for the pejorative sense of the expression “hamburgers and hotdogs”. For those who haven’t experienced either, the former arrive frozen and mechanically punched out, the latter, as disturbingly uniform tubes vacuum sealed in plastic. They are either burned over a hot grill or carelessly heated through, slathered with sweet condiments and sandwiched between cheap, sugary bread.
Of course I should step gingerly here. I realize dismantling prized examples of American authenticity is a tricky business, even if the intentions are good. And so, in the spirit of not wanting to offend, I’ll sidestep specific origin stories and further declarations of mediocrity and just say this: hamburgers and hotdogs share common European ancestry, arriving independently in the US sometime in the latter half of the 19th Century where they became, through the gyre of American assimilation, widespread, iconic, and the food of nostalgia.
What’s most surprising is that hamburgers and hotdogs share more than similarities of origin; they are born of a common technique. Most would immediately recognize a hotdog as a sausage, but hamburger meat is really just beef sausage that has been made into patties rather than stuffed into casings and twisted into links. Sausage as a genre is about maximizing yield from a slaughtered animal—taking lean, tough meat and grinding it with fat and seasonings until palatable. What shape is made of the result is only a matter of taste.
The hotdog, what we might more specifically refer to as a Frankfurter, is a style of sausage where a beef and pork filling is ground to a smooth, emulsified forcemeat. The mixture is then encased in a particularly snappy casing, smoked and cooked through. The results need only warming though in a hot water bath (as is done in New York) or brief coloring on a medium grill. Making frankfurters at home is possible, although quite a bit of time and equipment is needed. Better to find a German butcher.
Hamburgers, however, I insist you make at home. This is how I do it: find a reputable butcher. Ask for two large ribeye steaks, ground-to-order. Endure the inevitable raised eyebrows and suggestions to buy their pre-ground burger meat. Once home, put the ground meat into a stainless steel bowl. Season with salt and pepper, mixing sparely. Form loose patties slightly larger than hockey pucks. Gently grill over medium heat, flipping once. Do not, press, bash, or flip like some chipper 1950’s diner chef.
I decorate both with restraint. When good, the well seasoned meat needs little, although a dab of sharp mustard works well. Even buns are optional, although frankfurters go well in pretzel rolls and it’s difficult to improve upon the structural advantages of a toasted English muffin for hamburgers. If you still find “Hamburgers and Hotdogs” has a whiff of indifference about it, try delivering the platter to the table with the proud declaration: “Two types of authentic American sausages.” If you are met with fifteen minutes of silent eating: success.