Nothing is so simple, yet so complex, as the hamburger.

I once read that the hamburger is regarded both at home and abroad as the number one, stereotyped all-American food. But in America, the hamburger is, in and of itself, a major food group.  

Imagine for a moment that you’re hosting a visitor from Japan. In search for a true taste of America, he asks you to treat him to a hamburger. What do you serve?  

Our “hamburger” can range from a gut-rotting White Castle slider to a juicy half-pounder hot off the grill at a local beer and shot joint.

A good greasy burger can be served with fries at any diner in our land. Or it can be a gourmet conglomerate accompanied by swiss cheese, mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts, hot peppers, bacon and cheese and endless possibilities at any plastic menu emporium.

We have hamburgers and double-hamburgers, cheeseburgers and triple deckers, super burgers, farmer burgers, steak burgers, Big Boys, Big Macs, Whoppers and Bobbie Burgers, Eenies, Meenies, Minnies and Moes.

Walk into any restaurant in America, from the greasy spoon to a franchise drive-in to a fine dining establishment. Every menu in every joint will list a hamburger in some way, shape or form.

One man’s hamburger may be another man’s trash. My personal tastes have little room for any burger served by a franchise. Generally speaking, the larger the chain, the poorer the burger, with McDonald’s at the bottom of my scale. I do like to wolf down a dozen or so Sliders once in a while just to retain proper respect for their enduring powers.

When I go burger shopping, I find small town main drag taverns to be the best bet.  A joint called “Nick’s” up in Lemont is among the tops in my book.

At such establishments hamburgers and only hamburgers –hand-packed— are about all that touches the grill, except for onions, of course. When looking for an ideal hamburger, here are a few pointers: 

*Check out the ketchup (not catsup!) bottles. Only Heinz or an equivalent quality condiment will do.  Warning: some places might try to fool you by filling Heinz bottles with watered down sub-standard catsup. These establishments probably also serve instant mashed potatoes. Be on your way, or at least be wary. 

*Look for pickup trucks: When on the lookout for a great hamburger, or any type of food for that matter, I find pickup trucks are a very accurate indicator of quality. The quality of a hamburger served inside is directly proportionate to the number of pickup trucks parked outside.

*Who’s the cook? If it’s the same person who took your order, you’re in luck. If all of the above is also the owner, order one or here and one to go.

Still, the very best hamburger in my book is the first official cookout hamburger of the year. For a perfect hamburger, the following recipe must be followed in detail:

For starters, don’t use fossil fuels to light your charcoal. An electric starter is best, and gas grills are no match to real charcoal. 

Tightly hand-pack somewhat thin ground chuck patties (quarter pound max) while the coals are heating. Don’t rule out good quality frozen patties. 

When coals are hot, throw on the burgers. Singe one side, then the other, then move to the outer portion of the grill. Burgers cook in about the time it takes to drink one can of beer. If it’s hot and you’re thirsty, make that two cans.

If using packaged buns, Thursday is the best day to buy them – avoid Wednesday and Sunday packaged buns. To ensure uniformity in thickness from the top to bottom bun layer, buy your grocer’s homemade deli buns.

Thinly (a key word) slice your tomato, onion and pickles.  Do not use pre-sliced hamburger dills. Instead, slice regular dill pickles lengthwise. Tear off lettuce leaves sized slightly larger than the bun.

When the burgers are off the grill, spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on each bun – not too much, then place a leaf of lettuce on each bun. On top of the lettuce on the bottom – in this order – place a layer of sliced onions, then the sliced pickles. Squirt some mustard on top of the pickle layer.

On the top bun, place a layer of sliced tomato on the lettuce. A slice of American cheese between the tomato and lettuce is optional. (Do not melt cheese on grilled burgers, it interferes with the proper application of the ketchup.)

Now, pick up your burger patty by the edges and coat one side with ketchup (if the label says catsup, dump it down the drain). Place the ketchup-coated side of the burger face down on the bottom bun so that the ketchup and mustard blend together. Now paint the top side of your burger with another shot of ketchup. Quickly flop the top bun and its trappings on top of the burger, relying on centrifugal force to hold everything in place.

Put on an old shirt, bib or rain poncho and give thanks that you are not eating a Slider.