The blended burger: Friend or foe?

Trash or treasure? Just because the Bocuse d’Or has finally acknowledged there’s room for a vegan main on its roster of challenges hardly signifies a trend. In fact, Bocuse is a bit behind the fray, to say the least. Yet classic French cooking (and the way it’s taught) doesn’t necessarily need to bend to trends. After all, that’d defy the meaning of “classic” to some degree. If it does appear–in both pedagogy and on the plate–that there’s a new nod toward the prevalence of “plant-based” cuisine on the part of the masters, it won’t necessarily be because it’s good for us. It’ll be because the “vegetal” component of any dish, however it’s employed, just makes food taste good. Behold these anecdotes:

It takes 1,800 times less water to raise a pound of mushrooms as a pound of beef.

FIRST: The great Jacques Pépin tells us that a good way to make a juicy burger (in this case, a lamb burger) is to add a cup of chopped mushrooms to the mix for each pound of meat.  Because the mushrooms release so much water, the burger will not be dry, even if it is well-cooked. Here’s the recipe. The dish turns out to be a real delicacy, and has become standard fare in my kitchen, specially requested by the picky children in the family, who have no idea that there are mushrooms inside.

SECOND: Last year we wrote about how the Culinary Institute of America put out guidelines for chefs on how to use less meat. And it was noted that it takes 1,800 times less water to raise a pound of mushrooms as a pound of beef. At UC Riverside, students are regularly offered samples of a blended beef/mushroom burger and a turkey burger made with mushrooms and spinach. “Once they try it, they love it,” says Cheryl Garner, executive director of dining services at the University of California, Riverside. “Even people who don’t like mushrooms–they don’t even know there are mushrooms in it.”

Ah, would that there were more such instances of the happy convergence between the Good and the Good-For-You.

Not so fast. When the University of Connecticut recently went the blended burger route, it got a different reaction. Students started a petition to “bring back the original beef burger to UConn,” and urging students to sign, “if you are tired of the UConn administration making decisions that clearly ignore the interests of the students.” Latest count: 351 signatures.

Jeffrey Kittay After teaching literature at Yale, Kittay founded and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, which the New York Times called “a hip trade journal for the cerebral set.” It won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He was subsequently part of the adjunct faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, and the corporate board of Maine’s Portland Press Herald.

Kittay holds a Ph.D. from NYU and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College.