For Whom The Grill Tolls: Make Ernest Hemingway's Hamburgers

In Celebrity Recipes, we tackle a favorite recipe from a beloved star, past or present.

I'm guessing that there's only one recipe that shows up in both The Paris Review and The Bro Bible: Ernest Hemingway's hamburgers. I have to give credit to The Onion's Devin Vaughn; while working on this Celebrity Recipes series, pulling together my Boris Karloff guacamole, I think, in the Onion kitchen, he pointed out that I should feature Hemingway's hamburgers some time. I hadn't even known there was such a thing.

Which is surprising, since I had a bit of a Papa Hemingway obsession in college. I even took a literature class that featured only him, which made writing for other classes pretty difficult. He writes so starkly, with few adjectives or adverbs, it made a lot of my junior year college papers much shorter than usual. Hemingway then kind of lost me when he got into his manly sports like hunting and fishing (yes, I've read all of Death In The Afternoon, his 100,000-word love letter to the cruel sport of bull-killing), but I still love The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast and For Whom The Bell Tolls. So I am extremely familiar with early Paris Hemingway, but much less so with later Key West Hemingway, which is apparently where this recipe came from.

Hemingway is now so associated with machismo and adventure (that Bro Bible inclusion didn't come from nowhere), it makes sense that his signature dish would involve seared burgers. But Hemingway added a bunch of gourmet touches to amp up this typical, wholly America dish. Everyone might be trying to perfect their own hamburger recipe, but rest assured that Hemingway's is so good that I will be using it all summer. Not only does he add things like "India relish" and capers, but a decent amount of red wine. Mixing it all together, it seemed sort of soupy at first, so much so that I muttered, "What the hell, Papa," wondering how this was possibly all going to come together without at least a few binding breadcrumbs. But the man had obviously perfected the recipe over a considerable period of time: The red wine made the burgers absolutely juicy, while the extra adds made them exceedingly flavorful, especially with the few marination steps Hemingway included.

The result was an unusual but truly exemplary hamburger. I eagerly chomped along, enjoying my savory burger, when my enjoyment was suddenly enhanced by the burst of a caper, or a bit of that spicy relish. Even my husband—a burger aficionado whose usual terminology toward a hamburger is "good, not great"—called the recipe "solid," his highest form of praise. It also seemed so fancy, and wedded to its own flavor, that ketchup or cheese would only cheapen or muddy it, so I added a little brown mustard and mayo, but that was it. It didn't need any other condiments.

In the original Paris Review recipe, there are some spices that are super-specific or don't even exist anymore, like Spice Islands' (Hemingway's spice company of choice) Mei Yen Powder (basically MSG). And I substituted celery salt for his preferred Spice Island Beau Monde seasoning. We couldn't even find India relish at the Indian grocery, but it's apparently spicy, so we substituted with a giardiniera relish.

So this is basically a version of Hemingway's burgers that won't make you hunt down the far recesses of your neighborhood spice store, but is so delicious I believe it has to be very close to the original. Hemingway also favored pan searing over grilling. But honestly I think the secret to this burger is all about the wine—as with so many things. The original recipe says use red or white, but I would stick with red to keep with burger's deep, dark spice palette.

Papa Hemingway’s Hamburgers (adapted for modern times)

  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/4 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 heaping tsp. giardiniera relish
  • 2 Tbsp. capers
  • 1 heaping tsp. sage
  • 1/2 tsp. celery salt
  • 1/2 tsp. MSG
  • 1 egg, beaten in a cup with a fork
  • About 1/3 cup dry red wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. cooking oil
  • Mix the meat with garlic, onion, and dry seasonings with either a fork or your fingers. Let the mixture sit for 10 or 15 minutes "while you set the table and make the salad," according to Hemingway. Add the relish, capers, egg, and wine and marinate for another 10 minutes if possible.


    Then form four patties out of the meat: "The patties should be an inch thick, and soft in texture but not runny." He gets pretty specific about his searing methods here, so here they are, straight from Hemingway: "Have the oil in your frying-pan hot but not smoking when you drop in the patties and then turn the heat down and fry the burgers about four minutes. Take the pan off the burner and turn the heat high again. Flip the burgers over, put the pan back on the hot fire, then after one minute, turn the heat down again and cook another three minutes. Both sides of the burgers should be crispy brown and the middle pink and juicy."