The glamorous side of flipping burgers
Unfortunately, this burger was not served at the Build A Better Burger contest.
How do you build a better burger? The answer contains many more ingredients than you may expect. Cheddar cheese, sweet corn, basil, mayo, heirloom tomatoes, and bread and butter frickles were all present in Jennifer Beckman’s winning recipe for Screen Porch Burgers. The Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Contest awarded the Virginia resident $100,000 in the form of an impressive check the size of a baby calf. Make no mistake though, it was the frickles that stole the spotlight at the afternoon foodie festivities. Everywhere I went I picked up snippets of frickle-related conversation and confusion. “It’s just a fried pickle, right?” “No, No, it can’t be!” It was clear that everyone got immense pleasure just out of uttering the mythical word. “Those frickles are bad-ass,” yelled a random audience member during the judging. He said it best.
Last Wednesday, ten home cooks chopped, puréed and grilled for glory in at the World of Whirlpool Corporation’s state-of-the-art kitchens on the eighth floor of the Reid Murdoch building. Half of these contestants were preparing their very best beef burger for the grand prize; the other half vied for $15,000 in the alternative burger category. All of the recipes, chosen from thousands of submissions, had been tried and tested before the contestants were flown to Chicago from all over the country.
There is a certain art to being an amateur professional in the kitchen. Three of the finalists were back from previous years and everyone I talked was a seasoned connoisseur of highly incentivized cooking contests. Beckman already had a great year before sweeping the competition with her frickles. She’s going to Italy on her Crisco’s Mediterranean Inspirations Recipe and Essay Contest win, and she’s the National Cornbread Festival champ. This struck me as an incredibly sweet gig and a good opportunity to reevaluate my own life path. Daydreams of diving into pools filled with $100,000 checks and lazing about Mediterranean beaches flashed indiscriminately through my mind. Are national, well-sponsored food competitions the next gold rush? If so, how does one better the long odds of success? “I think what I have going for me is that I pay attention to the rules,” said Beckman. “Most people don’t.”
But enough delusions of grandeur – let’s get down to the meat. As with Beckman, this was not a bad gig for me either, seeing as I got to sample ten burgers for lunch while slurping down endless milkshakes of the strawberry, chocolate and vanilla varieties. Lounging upon endless, deep blue couches on the spacious outside patio (where the grilling was done), surrounded by warm, sunny, humidity-free weather, I felt like I was not in Chicago at all, but, rather in Miami. The Floridian vibe was palpable, though perhaps not totally surprising considering the competition was held at Miami Beach last year. I have a feeling, however, that I got better weather in Chicago than last year’s competition saw, seeing as it took place during hurricane season and inside a tent. The guests generally wore smart suits, argyle sweaters, skin-tight jeans and polos. The trending color of the day was a clean, breezy white—not so great for eating juicy burgers, but perfect for Miami.
Back to the meat. The alternative burgers were sampled first. These could use any kind of meat (or non-meat product), but the judges, for some reason, had exclusively chosen five pork burgers. This was absolutely fine by me. My favorite by far was Lauren Wyler’s Peppered Pineapple Al Pastor Burgers. The pork patty was stuffed with chilies, garlic and pineapple, topped with a jalapeño spread, red onion and cilantro relish, and a lightly grilled pineapple that oozed just as much juice as the burger. This was the only dish of the entire contest that I just had to get seconds of no matter what the repercussions would be. It did not win. Instead the prize went to the Latino Pork Burgers of Mark Pyne, a remarkably warm and personable individual who had competed and lost in the previous year.
Likewise, my favorite beef burger, Loanne Chiu’s Soul of Seoul Sliders, lost the food fight. My feeling was that in this competition, and, perhaps, generally, in these sorts of big-prize cook-offs, food gets you pretty far and personality gets you the rest of the way. When she brought her burger up to judging table, Beckman had a big smile on her face and was excited as hell to talk about what she made. Head judge James McNair, barely disguising his friendly grin beneath a heavy mustache, said to Beckman, “Your burger has everything in it but the fireflies.”
Beckman said that if it was fireflies he wanted, she could arrange that.