Presenting the Unified Theory of Burgerdom

Illustration for article titled Presenting the Unified Theory of Burgerdom
Illustration: ComicSans (iStock)

There’s a storyline in the third season of Parks And Recreation, in which two men square off over an issue that sits close to the heart of many. In it, Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) each prepare a burger.

Their burger cook-off rests on an ostensibly simple choice: turkey or beef. “Turkey can never beat cow, Chris,” Swanson says, in explanation of a victory he never doubted. But the difference between Traeger’s “East Meets West” turkey burger and Swanson’s plain old beef hamburger is not limited to the protein in question. It’s also a question of expectations.


I am no burger scientist. I just like to eat good things. But I know that when I want one kind of burger, the other will not do, and nor are the two filed in the same place in my brain. Sometimes you want a beef patty, fired up on a backyard grill, dressed simply with ketchup, mustard, and American cheese. Sometimes you want a pretzel bun, slathered-on garlic aioli, applewood-smoked cheddar, sauteéd mushrooms, maybe an onion ring, hell why not some pork belly confit… Both are hamburgers, but the experience varies wildly.

I’ve been meditating on this key point these last few weeks. I’ve arrived at what I believe to be a Unified Theory Of Burgerdom. The key to a satisfactory burger-eating experience is not the precise combination of toppings, nor the exact doneness of the patty, not the quality of beef or nor the perfect mustard selection. If you truly want to live your best burger life, the key is to know what you want at the moment, which boils down to two camps: Do you want a cornucopia or a classic?

The Cornucopia

There’s a useful metric to consider when assessing which school of burger thought best suits one’s palate at any given moment. Let’s call it the fried-egg conundrum.

The addition of a fried egg fundamentally changes the experience of eating a burger. Its presence adds two distinct flavors and textures. It is no longer a burger—it is a brunch sandwich. If the burger you crave could conceivably be improved by the presence of a fried egg—or if you realize that the egg wouldn’t go well with the pulled pork, or the guacamole, or the chili—your dream burger is a cornucopia.


Cornucopia burgers are messy. They’re typically tall, too. It’s a sandwich often more like a Jenga tower of food—you can bite it at least once, but odds are it’s coming apart really fast. Fork and knife might be deployed. The cornucopia burger is a burger that’s also a toppings conveyance system. The flavors are big, the additions often indulgent or unexpected. There are often multiple meats (patty plus bacon plus bacon jam, that kind of thing). The patty isn’t an afterthought, but it isn’t the star of the show either. The patty and the rest of the burger are, if not quite of equal importance, then pretty close, and while a badly cooked patty could ruin the whole, a lackluster patty would just disappear.

These are the burgers you often find at gastropubs, or the ones you order by choosing items from multiple columns in a menu. The “East Meets West” burger is a cornucopia burger. Taleggio cheese crisp. Papaya chutney. Microgreens. Black truffle aioli. They all sound delicious. Ron Swanson’s eventual victory is irrelevant, because the judges of that contest were comparing apples and oranges. You don’t add one topping, you add a half dozen, and one of them might be a fried egg. It is a form of burger favored by chefs, who could impart chefy things to it. When the gourmet hamburger revolution began sweeping across the country around 2008, it was the cornucopia burger, not the classic, that rose. The cornucopia burger is a blank canvas with endless possibilities. The classic burger simply is.


The Classic


Imagine a hamburger you make at the park on one of those community grills. That’s a classic burger. Whether motivated by preference or ease, the focus here is on the patty, because unless you go nuts with the ketchup, it’s the beef (or turkey, or lamb, or portobello) you’ll be tasting. When I think of eating a hamburger as a kid, it’s the classic that I think about. And for my money, it’s an approach we undervalue.

It’s not as though burgers of this sort have gone out of vogue, but when you think of a “gourmet” hamburger, what do you picture? Not a backyard burger. Not the simplicity of ketchup + mustard + pickles + charcoal + meat, and maybe cheese, if you’re feeling daring. Yet this is the burger in its purest form. It tastes of nostalgia, which counts for something. Here, the meat is undeniably the marquee name in flashing bulbs, and it’s in your best interest to be judicious when applying add-ons beyond the usual. When you’re craving a classic, you may even hesitate with a condiment as innocuous as barbecue sauce, because that’s a powerful flavor, and that may mess with the cosmic balance of Classic Burgerdom.


Sometimes you might make a classic because it’s the simplest option, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious. With a classic, you taste the method of cooking, not just the meat (in a classic, the quality of beef is of utmost importance; we don’t suggest anything below a 80/20 meat/fat ratio). The classic is a celebration of the grill, the flattop, the cast iron skillet. It doesn’t require accoutrements to ensure its success. A great burger in either category will be juicy, but with classics especially, you notice the juiciness (even with the smashed burger variant). Really, the classic favors those who appreciate the patty first and foremost—that’s a Ron Swanson. “Add ketchup if you want,” he says. “I couldn’t care less.”

Which burger are you today?

Illustration for article titled Presenting the Unified Theory of Burgerdom
Photo: Arijuhani, Smitt

What I’m suggesting the next time you think about a burger is take three seconds and ask yourself: Cornucopia or Classic? Identifying which school of burger thought most appeals at any given moment has been immensely helpful for me when I’m ordering or cooking a burger. All approaches can be great, but the experiences vary wildly. Pinpointing which appeals right now can save you some real burger heartache—and if all you want is a tasty beef patty, it’ll save you the trouble of frying those eggs. Consider this a gut check, a mental pause before proceeding, to maximize your burger-enjoyment potential.

Put another way: The cornucopia burger is the Wall Of Sound. The classic burger is three chords and the truth. Both can be wonderful, but they are not the same. Turn the dial in your mind, and ask yourself: What kind of song do you want to eat today? Tune it to the right station, and go nuts.


Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!



What is the point where “classic” becomes “cornucopia”?

For example, I like a mushroom cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and pickles (basically, my Red Robin/Five Guys go-to). On the one hand, this is a burger with four individual toppings, and depending on one’s opinion on cheeseburger cheese, possibly a non-standard cheese (like swiss). On the other hand, all of the toppings minus the mushrooms are traditional, and the burger is not likely to be THAT tall.

I think most would lean toward that being classic, but I’m curious where everyone would consider the border to be, and how hard that border is?