Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thoughts on burgers and free food (Burger Brawl)

Charbroiled sirloin burger

When I was about 4 years old, I was out with my mom in Taipei going to buy some 將肉燒餅 (jiang rou shao bing), which is basically Asian-style roast beef stuffed inside a baked sesame bun type thing. The guy making the things is super old, has more than a few missing teeth, and I'm not gonna lie - basically looks like a pedophile. My mom buys like five of these things, and the dude tells her that I can have one for free because he thinks I'm cute (if only things still worked that way). At first my mind is thinking, "man, this shit is awesome... I get food for free. That's the best kind of food!" But after some mental processing, I began to think "there must be some catch. No one just gives away product without profiting. What exactly does this man want? Is it my repeated patronage of his shop? Can't be... I don't make purchasing decisions. Is he trying to molest me because he looks like, no... is a pedophile? This seems quite plausible. If I accept it, does that automatically grant him permission to my naughty bits?" These are important questions that a 4 year old me needed answers to, but couldn't possibly understand.

My buddy Danny over at "Food in Mouth" wrote a post about going to press events and having stuff given to you based on your status in which he talks about how stupid it is to 1) cover events that no one else can attend and 2) write about an experience you didn't actually pay for. In all honesty, I agree with that entire post... even though I'm guilty on both counts. I write about burgers all the time without actually paying for it (although someone does). Does that change my perception on the food? Of course it does! The burgers at Minetta Tavern are absolutely bitchin', but at $26 dollars a pop, you will NEVER see me there. Alternatively, you will find me absolutely demolishing White Castle sliders because they're 56 cents each. It's just more cost effective, and that's how I roll on my budget.

Burger 15

Last Sunday I went to this thing called "Burger Brawl" for AHT. I had no intention of going originally, because tickets were $60 and going to a less than worthy cause imho, but when Serious Eats told me they'd get me in for free I figured I might as well. Instead of telling you how awesome it is to eat 18 different kinds of burgers without paying (it is) and being a hypocritical cunt in the process, I'm just going to discuss the few burgers that stood out, and that I'd probably be willing to pay for in the future. Starting with the "Burger 15" from Ladder 15.

At $18, the Burger 15 is really expensive to poor old me. It probably costs that much because they make their patty from ground short rib and then they add bone marrow to it. The rest of the sandwich is pretty normal... grilled red onions, mushrooms, all inside a brioche. Everyone on AHT bitches about how much the brioche is overplayed and boring. Well that's fine and all, but I like eating bread that tastes like candy, so everyone needs to calm the fuck down when I say a brioche tastes good. Anyway, it's not a really complex burger, but when you bite into it, all you taste is a heavy beefiness. Yes, there's a hint of sweetness from the onions, but the unadulterated beef scent is undeniable. While the price tag makes it somewhat unrealistic, it is a burger I would eat several times a week if I could. I would likely die of a heart attack, but it'd be worth it.

London burger

There was also the "London Burger" from London Grill. For all the buttplugs who hate brioches, here's a burger sandwiched inside an English muffin... because it's from London Grill and all. It doesn't really have a patty... it has a giant over-sized meatball core. It also doesn't really use traditional cheese, opting instead for boursin - a creamy spread that's more like cream cheese. Basically if you went to a burger purist/asshole... they'd tell you this isn't a burger. It's a meatball sandwich. Well fuck them, it tasted delicious. The one thing that you get with a massive patty cross-section is a ridiculous amount of liquid retention even after cooking. This thing sprayed juices everywhere like a dude in porn. It was quite the spectacle. A tasty spectacle indeed.

Paesano's burger

Scissor me timbers yo, Paesano's should really start making a burger. So I realize that it's kind of a dick move to be posting about a burger that doesn't actually exist on a menu, but I really hope someone who works there sees this and makes this a permanent fixture in their restaurant. It's not that they came up with anything brilliantly different - their burger is just topped with thick-cut bacon, grilled onions, and a tangy sauerkraut-like sauce mixture - but there was something I couldn't really pin my finger on that was fantastically different about their burger. The charring on the outside was something unmatched by any of the other competitors, and gave it a certain homemade charm that all the more "upscale" establishments lacked. It tasted like a better version of a backyard grilled burger. It was conventional and entirely without pretension. Impressing people with flavor rather than extravagant toppings. Like this nonsense:

Geo burger

Why in the world do you think I'd want to have duck and arugula in my burger? That's just dumb.

So back to the story in the beginning - I did indeed take the free sandwich, and no I was not physically abused, but to be honest... that just added to the confusion. Free food - is it okay to take? What are the ramifications associated with accepting it? Well... 19 years down the road and I'm still not sure. When I first started this blog, I looked at all the other food writers who got invited to shit and thought that getting free food was the epitome of baller-status. I was a college kid who didn't really make that much money - oh wait, that still hasn't changed - so the idea of getting things without paying was incredible to me, but for some reason... once people started giving me free food, I felt guilty about it. It was the very same guilt that 4 year old me couldn't understand. I felt like I owed something, I wanted to pay. Some of that comes from the fact that, deep down, I know I can't logically write about something without bias when I don't feel the pain of having to reach into my own wallet to pay for it... some of it comes from the fact that I realize decisions about food shouldn't be made in an economic vacuum in which prices are irrelevant... but most of it stems from the fact that I feel like there's some sort of inherent agreement being made where I owe a debt to the person giving me free shit. A debt that I have to repay with good press. I have to admit, it makes me feel a bit dirty.


Howard said...

when we first started the blog we would get emails asking if we wanted free samples, and i thought it was awesome. now i see those emails and i want to respond, "why would i want free samples of your shitty product?" it's the same at food events. a couple of weekends ago i was at smorgasburg and the guy in front of me in line mentioned to the vendor that he was a blogger, and the vendor gave him free stuff. i wanted to tell the vendor that probably half of the people at smorgasburg are food bloggers, and we don't all try to weasel free stuff out of people.

Hungry said...

Hah! This post made me laugh out loud...at work. Thanks for making me THAT PERSON. Just in case you wanted to know, it was the brioche part.

Anyway, I haven't been blogging as long as you have but I've come across the same free stuff dilemma. I've only started getting emails from PR people about free meals and what not. However, I knew I always wanted to stay anonymous. That wouldn't be possible if I went with them knowing I was there. So, I've decided to forgo most if not all free things. In my opinion, a review of a meal is not only the food but also the experience with the service, decor, price, and other patrons.

Danny said...

as for the not paying for your food while someone else pays for it, i think that's totally legit. they must fall in a different category than the ones you have to pay for yourself though. i think the idea is that if your employer is paying for the burger, then you can concentrate on the food itself. and if all your posts as an employee are done that way, then there's consistency. i think most of us don't get paid to write, and sometimes if we accept free shit then it's randomly shady. and randomly shady might a well be "when should i trust this review?" so yea, totally cool for your SE posts to be free you know? but obviously no one lives in a vacuum, we all gotta pay for our food at some point.

Nicholas said...

Howard - I think I had a distinct shift in my views of free stuff after a while. Like I said, when I started, if someone offered me free stuff I would've been ecstatic. Now I don't know what I should do (the correct answer is to refuse refuse refuse haha). I also don't like playing the press/blogger game when it comes to events. Partially because I don't want to feel taken advantage of by publicists, but mostly because I think that ruins the point of blogging. Blogging should exist as an honest platform to convey information, not a means to get free shit.

Hungry - Yo, admit it... it's really annoying when people tell you that something is "boring" when it's something you actually really like. For me that's brioche buns. They just taste good damnit!

100% agree on the experience portion of blogging. How are you explaining your experience when you're getting something through means others don't? Unfortunately, I, at some point, plastered my contact information all over the internet... so I ruined the anonymity thing a long time ago :(

Danny - I think AHT wants their reviews to be entirely based on quality of food and not price, and I can see where they're coming from too, but it still feels a bit ridiculous to me. Obviously I can pay $30 for a burger and tell you that it's infinitely better than a Big Mac, but how much value exists in that statement in reality? Not much. I'm just telling you there's a correlation between price and quality. Most of my gripes exist with the other side of the equation, getting free food at publicity events. Because it's not really free... you're expected to increase the visibility of said event. That's really dumb to me. It's also why I hate going to events if I'm expected to write something.

Nicholas said...

Anonymous - that's a question that depends on how much cash I have in my wallet and my level of hunger. Most of the time the answer is: no.

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