One birthday party for my son was planned as a spooky hamburger party. The spookiness was professionally taken care of by my daughter, who decorated the whole house with plastic spiders, beetles, bats and other cheerfulness, and tied my old cast-iron coffee mill securely up with fake spider webs. They also dressed up appropriately. There is a picture of my son standing in a black cloak, scythe in hand, at the window by the door with a reproachful frown on his face: the guests were late.
I had to organize the food. No wacky home cooking allowed, what shall the other kids think. I negotiated for a while and at the end I was allowed to buy real beef for the hamburgers. Apart from tomatoes and lettuce, the rest of the feast came out of assorted bottles and packages: ketchup, hamburger dressing and two kinds of ice-cream topping. Hamburger buns, several kinds of ice cream, all the soft drinks, sweets to take home, and I’m forgetting half of it.
The total price for all the fanciness was enormous, and I realized what all the poor other people have to pay all the time. Here is a solitary guy in his office clothes, coming straight from the train, piling up frozen meals in his cart. There is a dour lady accompanied by two concentrated and helpful children, who stacks her whole cart full of frozen pizza, pre-packaged sausages, frozen hamburgers, five kinds of cookies, yogurt with fruit flavor and a whole battery of other colorful packages the content of which I can’t even begin to guess. Again comes a person with 90% pre-fabricated nonsense-goods in her cart. They all arrive at price tags that happen to me only on days when the Parmesan is gone and, afterwards, I can’t get away from the cheese department, whereupon I also buy a pile of beef for the freezer, have to replenish both olive oil and sunflower oil, am buying fish for the day but walk away with a bag full of special-offer salmon, and am out of coffee, milk and olives.
A hamburger party could go like this: The buns are baked on the evening before the great day. This requires perhaps 20 minutes of preparation and some regular monitoring of the rising and baking. A smart person uses the spare time between bun activities to prepare a mayonnaise in the blender, which forms the basis for the dressing – which in turn is a matter of added mustard, honey or sugar and selected suitable spices. Now comes the ketchup, which consists of tomato puree, sugar, vinegar, spices and a bit of patience to get balance into the mix. For my own use, I would go easy on the sugar and add olive oil, some fresh herbs and garlic, but okay, this is a children’s party.
Buns and dressing done, one can prepare some of the ice cream toppings: syrup, cocoa powder, perhaps even melted chocolate and cream, I don’t know. My favorite topping is made from a mix of red and black currants from the garden (or the freezer…) that are cooked for a short time with some sugar and a mint leaf or two, and finally pureed through a mouli legume or an adequate device of the food processor.
On the day of the party, one buys tomatoes and lettuce, minced beef or beef bits for home-mincing, whichever is cheapest or freshest, and, indeed the soft drinks, the ice cream and the sweets-to-go. How to shape non-frozen regular burgers? After flattening out the hamburger-beef-cake on a plank or platter, you take a huge beer glass (like for Belgian specialty beer) or mug and proceed as you would when making cookies. Make a slight depression in the center of each burger: when cooked, the beef contracts at the sides, which accounts for the usual bulging of the still-raw inside of the middle section of previously flat burgers (This is Robin’s trick, I never figured this out). The rest of the party is a matter of medium-light time management, a proper distribution of the goods and of cleaning up.
Beyond matters of expenses, taste and health, I anyway can’t see the advantages of prefab food in terms of convenience. Try to open any of these packages without an attack of rage, or spoiling the contents.