Sunday, May 13, 2012

Recipe: Fireman’s Canteen Hamburgers, the Real Deal

A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken. – James Dent

That's my own yellow mustard on the left. It tastes just like what you buy.
Recipe is on the blog. (My hamburgers are also twice the recommended size...)
Hamburgers may sound like a simple thing to make, but the best always seem to come from canteens and small take-out places. I know the secret firsthand. (We won't even consider "chain" hamburgers on the same category for this post, for obvious reasons…)

"The Canteen"
The canteen stood right in the centre of the village.
(Photo is from Google Street View.)
I worked two summers in the Fireman’s Canteen in the village where I grew up. The canteen itself ran from the very early 1960s through to the early 1980s. It was a fixture of village summer life.

The first time I worked there I was 14 and the second I was 16. That’s where I learned to fry hamburgers – and mix up the hamburger meat into delicious patties.

The Fire Department owned the Canteen, but rented it out to be run. It certainly wasn’t a goldmine, but I do have many, many happy memories, even though the hours were disgustingly long. 11am to 10pm many nights throughout the summer.

I worked my two summers with my best friend growing up (she’s still a good friend, but I’m married to my best friend) and her mother, Jan. Jan looked after all the ordering and finances, and also worked as many of those long shifts as we two did. 

I remember two things about those summers as clear as if they happened yesterday. One is all the mayflies that would almost envelope the Canteen at night when the lights were on – inside or out. The flies emerged from the river around the last week of May and stuck around for about 3 weeks. It was a trial to open the window to wait on customers.

Trees are slowly reclaiming where the canteen stood.
It's kind of sad to see.
The mayflies are out in force right now for this year but there's no canteen to cling to. I imagine they cover the store, only about 100 feet away.

The second is all the kids from the Scout Camp coming down just before dusk every night to spend their “tuck” money. Tuck money was some change (usually 25¢ to 50¢) each child got to spend on candy to help “tuck” them into bed.

Our blood used to run cold on seeing those 20-30 kids marching down the other side of the river toward the canteen. Imagine having to wait on each kid, who could never make up their minds, and help them spend every… last… penny... on candies that cost 2¢ to 5¢ each.

I do have to admit it was also a bit of a bummer to see all your friends having weekend fun while you were trapped in a hot canteen working. But all in all I do have to say it was enjoyable, or maybe character-building… At least we were in the heart of the action, if not participating directly in it.

We stocked the Canteen with supplies from a distributor in Bridgewater and sometimes would take reconnaissance runs down to their facility to check out what was new. We would choose from chocolate bars, unusual chips and ice cream flavours, candies of all sorts, and the list goes on. I had my first taste of cherry potato chips because of one of those trips. Yes, they were as disgusting as they sound.

When it came to things we cooked we bought breaded Digby clams, french fries, hot dogs, fish, chicken and fries. But we had to make out own hamburger patties. That meant mixing the meat and pressing patties for each week – by hand. We used to do it in Jan’s kitchen – 20+ lbs at a time.

This is about 1.5 lbs. We used to make 20+ lbs at a time.
The hamburgers
The Fireman’s Canteen was famous for its hamburgers. Everybody loved them. I never really knew what went into one until I was face to face with a bowl full of ground meat. Now I do, and I have never made them any other way since.

Once mixed we would portion out the meat onto waxed paper with the help of an ice cream scoop. (You know the kind I mean – the one with the trigger on the side.) That way every patty was the same size. I would suggest you use a similar measure of some sort.

When cooking, we avoided pressing the meat on the grill if at all possible. All that liquid that comes out was supposed to stay IN the burger. Made in this way, they cooked quickly (so you could get food to your customers fast) and were nice and juicy.

These are the hamburgers you remember from when you were young. The Canteen is long gone now, the victim of too many government regulations and people probably being afraid of the long hours and dedication the work required. People counted on that Canteen and it is still missed by many in the village.

By the way, we only received pay at the end of the tourist season. No money at all from May through to September. We cost shared. So if you had a bad season…

I can’t remember what I did with the money the first time. I probably squandered it. The second year I bought a 10’ two-seater Sun-ray boat and a 25 horsepower motor. The following summer I had a LOT of fun!

If you've price hamburger recently you will know it's not
cheap. It's almost like the stores know we will want it
and upped the cost...  If you do grind your own, make sure
has some fat in it, or your patties will be dry.
One last note:
If you’ve priced hamburger recently you will know it’s through the roof. Hamburger is just ground beef. Nothing is stopping you from purchasing a less expensive piece of beef and grinding it yourself. You can also do a good job of it with a food processor. That’s what I did.

Just make sure that the meat isn’t too lean. If it is you’ll end up with dry hamburgers. Introduce a little fat by adding a couple slices of ground bacon for every pound of meat if you’re not sure.

I made my patties about twice as big as I should have this night. That’s what happens when you cook when you’re hungry…

Canteen Hamburgers
Quantities are for 1 pound of meat*  |  Yield, about 8 bun-sized burgers
1 lb hamburger meat (not lean)
1 egg
2 tsp yellow mustard
1 tsp onion 
1/2 tsp each salt and pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder (optional)
 dried breadcrumbs, if the meat's too wet (also optional)

Mix the meat, egg, mustard, onion, garlic, salt and pepper together very well with your (very clean) hands.

Scoop out individual patties onto sheets of waxed paper. Place another piece on top and flatten to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.

Cook until the juices run clear.

* To make more than 8 burgers simply scale the recipe up.


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