The other weekend, we - Minima, Minora, Maxima and myself - cycled into Cambridge. Upon locking up our bikes in town, we had a coffee at one of the little kiosks that spring up in public spaces. Later, we went to McDonalds and had four burger meals with drinks. There was scarcely any difference in price.
McDonald's, I think, is a great place to eat. Kids get toys with their meals and can be relatively loud without making you feel that you're breaking the law, the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi by allowing them to be children. Or, indeed, social conventions about the "done thing" forged in upwardly-mobile dinner parties wherein the great, the good and the gormless gather to gossip.
Many years ago, I remember my Mum taking me to an oriental restaurant up north; the only pub to sell food was shut, the café was far away, and at that time "fast food" would have conjured up a picture of a sarnie on a train. I'm sure the food must have been very good, but we made our way through it silently and uncomfortably.
There have been various styles of cuisine going in and out of fashion, but, although two radishes presented on a bed of chilli-and-banana flavoured ice-cream might make you think, when I get a meal I just want to eat the damn thing, not write a doctoral thesis about it.
Recently, my brother Asinus took me for a burger to thank me for helping his wife Patientia with her tooth-related travails. I was expecting a McDonald's, which would have been good, but he went one better.
GBK - Gourmet Burger Kitchen - is an eaterie in Regent Street that's been there for over a year, although I've managed to miss it, probably because usually when I'm walking down that way, my gaze is straight ahead as I try to weave my way through the crowd.
Through the door, I felt as if I'd entered a posh restaurant, and started to panic a little. But when I saw the menu, I knew that I'd gone to hamburger heaven. I ordered a beefburger with blue cheese and bacon, declining the offer of chips as I merely wanted to fill a hole that would be empty again in time for dinner. No problem. The staff were friendly, the lighting was subdued and so was the music. Wine or beer was available but we had coffee, which came almost immediately. The burger obviously took longer than a McDonald's, but still came more quickly than I was expecting it to. It was served with the bacon between a good-sized, freshly cooked burger and a thick, melting slab of blue cheese, atop which was lettuce, topped with a subtly-spiced chutney which was fenced in by two semicircles of purple onion. Had Mozart made burgers, this is what he'd have come up with.
Obviously it was pricier than a McDonald's or burger King than such, but I was expecting that - not just for the superior cooking, but also for the ambience (and anyway, Asinus was paying). It was still cheaper than a snack of an equivalent size in an equivalently classy restaurant.
The four of us will still go to McDonald's when in town, but I don't see McDonald's etc and GBK being in competition - they're for different types of eating. And I now know a good place to take Maxima.
When I got home my interest in burgers was piqued. My Gran once worked as a cook - I got her old book of "Plain Cookery Recipes" from the Edinburgh School of Cookery and Domestic Economy (which used to award housewives' diplomas) from the shelf. She had marked it "1929" on the inside front cover; there's no printed date on the book, but the only editions of it that I can find are 1920 and 1932. Inside, there's a recipe for "croquettes", which appears closer to burgers than croquettes as we now understand them. It evoked poignant whiffs of a kitchen at the edge of living memory. Here's some equivalents if you're interested, and here is the recipe:
Half-pound cooked meat.
One gill second stock.
One teaspoonful of chopped parsley.
One teaspoonful ketchup or Harvey's sauce.
Pepper and salt.
TO COAT THE CROQUETTES
One beaten egg.
Dried bread crumbs.
Free the meat from fat and skin, and chop or mince it finely. Make a sauce of the dripping, flour and stock; add it to the meat, parsley and seasonings, and turn the mixture on to a plate to cool. When cold and firm divide into equal-sized portions, and form into croquettes. Brush with beaten egg. Toss in the bread crumbs, and fry to a golden brown in smoking-hot fat. Dish, and garnish with fried parsley. Serve with a suitable sauce.
To fry parsley. - Wash the parsley, pick each sprig from the stalk, and dry carefully. Put the parsley in a frying basket, and cool the fat till there is no smoke rising from it. Put the basket gently into the pan, and fry till the hissing noise stops. Drain well.