Commentary: The $15,000 burger

How often does red meat make the front page of the newspaper when it"s not a story about a massive recall or a horrendous outbreak of foodborne illness, that is?

Not very often.

Yesterday was an exception, however, at least in the local daily The Herald, published in the Seattle-area town of Everett, Wash., where I live.

The headline (rather curiously) read: "Drive to tweak builds a better burger," with a photo of amateur chef Mark Richardson and his award-winning lamb burger splashed across three columns.

The Snohomish, Wash., resident had just won $15,000 in a contest sponsored by Sutter Home Winery, the California-based vintner perhaps best known for its popular, if pedestrian, Merlots, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Suavignons.

Commentary: The $15,000 burgerOfficially, Richardson"s creation was described as "a cumin-garam-marsala-coriander-spiked Indian burger on pita bread with tahini-pistachio-serrano-chile-cream-cheese mayonnaise."

Try fitting that mouthful on a menu.

Nevertheless, according to The Herald, Richardson beat out more than 3,500 entrants in a Napa Valley cook-off last month, winning in the "Alternative" division.

You can certainly see how his burger recipe qualified for that category; the lamb patty has a dozen different ingredients, as so does his "special sauce."

Richardson claimed to be a mere dilettante in the kitchen, telling the reporter that his only culinary passion was spicy foods.

As a kid, he wanted more zing in his chicken noodle soup, he said. "I spruced up the Campbell"s with vinegar and soy sauce," he said.

Okay, who doesn"t agree that Campbell"s on offense couldn"t stand some spicing up?

Six patties, two hours, one shot

A far most intriguing part of the story was the factoid buried on the newspaper section"s back page: He served on the board of Sierra Trading Post, an online and catalog retail sportswear company that his dad founded in 1986 and later sold to The TJX Co. in 2012 for what the story described as "lots of money."

"I retired at age 44," Richardson said, noting that he now lives in a large log home in the heavily forested foothills of Washington"s Cascade Mountains and has plenty of time to spend in the home"s sprawling kitchen unlike the Sutter Home contest.

There, he was placed in a tent, was given two pounds of meat and had to fashion six burgers in two hours.

"I felt like I was taking an SAT test," he told the newspaper. "I had to be focused."

Between struggling to light his propane grill, using the wrong size measuring spoon (one that was a tablespoon and a half, instead of a tablespoon) and battling nerves, he managed to accomplish the most important task at any cook-off: Impressing the judges, at which he succeeded admirably.

"All of the judges scored it highest of the five competing burgers," head judge James McNair wrote in an email to The Herald. "He created an unusual and delicious spread for the pita pockets. He grilled them perfectly."

About the only downside to this rave review of red meat is that Richardson"s "Cumin-garam-marsala-coriander-spiked Indian burger on pita bread" creation won"t be coming to a restaurant near any of us anytime soon. Nor to the deli aisle at your local supermarket.

Nevertheless, although it was probably a slow news day, it was great to see something a culinary story devoted to something other than vegan shamburgers, faux-fat desserts and tofu-based substitutes for the animal foods that rightfully ought to occupy the center of our plates.

And at least once in awhile, the front page of the paper.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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