Those who follow this blog will perhaps recall my quest for the perfect cheeseburger. It is a mission that has introduced me to interesting combinations of ingredients accompanying a beef patty between a bun. That satisfying search was rudely interrupted in 2020 when COVID managed to bring the restaurant industry to its knees, forcing a whole generation to learn to cook, even if only in a microwave. As my travel circles finally widen again, new opportunities to continue my search return.
Earlier this summer, life finally afforded the chance to visit Mt. Rushmore National Park and the surrounding area. Even without a burger, that proved to be a bucket list experience. Viewing the representation of four presidents carved on a mountain side, plus time at Crazy Horse and the Badlands all anchored an enjoyable educational opportunity. It was a lunch visit to a little place called Murphy’s Pub and Grill in Rapid City that presented an occasion for a new burger combination. The restaurant describes itself as “a contemporary Irish watering hole with classic and updated pub grub.” It has been in business since the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Said to have been the only bar open at 7 a.m. in those early years, it also provided a convenient waiting area for the barbershop next door, allowing patrons to throw back a few while listening for the barber to yell, “Next!”
A selection on the menu named “The Murphy Burger” won my attention for the day. Some creative soul dared to combine Granny Smith apples, caramelized onions, and brie cheese atop a thick beef burger. Those are three interesting choices to introduce together to the burger world.
If no one warns you before you bite into a Granny Smith apple, you might think someone picked it too early. You probably expect a sweet response when you sink your teeth into an apple’s flesh. Not with this variety. Created in Australia by accident when a sprout emerged from a compost pile and was fertilized by who knows what, this variety has a “smack your mama” kind of tartness that startles the taste buds. It has its place in the apple world, for sure, but it pays to know in advance what you’re getting when Granny Smith is involved. If you’re looking for sassy instead of sweet, it can be a good choice.
Caramelized onions may well qualify as the bacon of the vegetable world because almost everything tastes better with their addition! Slowly cooking fresh onions for an extended period of time brings out their natural sugars. I suppose there is a parallel to life’s heated moments over time bringing out something more positively flavorful and enriching but frankly in those cases I might just prefer to eat life’s onions raw! With food, however, caramelized onions are almost always a winning addition.
As for brie, it is the kind of cheese that makes me stand straighter. That is not due to its flavor but rather because it comes across as an upscale, perhaps slightly snooty cheese. You need to be on your best behavior to earn the right to eat it. I probably first tasted it at party brave enough to not serve cheese out of a spray can. It was love at first bite. I’d gladly put on a mock turtle neck and sports jacket if that is what it took to enjoy it spread on a few crackers or an apple slice. When served warm, brie is smooth and creamy, with a bit of a buttery flavor. It triggers the kind of response that immediately goes for a second bite, and then another – until I’m foolish enough to remember the Nutrition Facts label. Between salt and fat, a person needs not to overdo it. One piece atop a burger on vacation no less surely can be accommodated!
The mere idea of combining these three ingredients with a burger was enough to send my saliva glands into overdrive. How could I not order it? I am sad to report that the next phase of my experience might qualify for a segment of MadTV’s Lowered Expectations if they ever revive it. I will say I lay the fault with the preparation of the burger, not the ingredients themselves. In the picture above you’ll notice that this brie was not soft or creamy. It had been heated, but not enough to get the desired consistency. It was dumped on the burger to one side and suffocated with a bun. Maybe there is a market for clumps and chunks of brie that I’ve not learned to appreciate. This day there was no run to the cheese. No warm creamy cheese taste complementing the rest of the cast. The caramelized onions were passable, but Granny Smith must have been rationing her vittles because there wasn’t much of it to be found. As a final dash to my hopes, the burger was overly charred. At least the fries were crispy and the ketchup was red.
The experience calls forth a few important reminders. For one thing, the expectations we carry into a situation greatly influence our impression and response to what comes next. Set the bar too high or unrealistically and you increase the odds for being disappointed. I learned that the hard way the second year I tried to plan a birthday celebration for the woman who would become my wife. The first year was so wonderful with its food and ambiance that in year two I found myself wishing I had gone to some local dive or fast-food joint so there would be plenty of room for improvement. I suppose I did okay because we’ve had plenty of great celebrations since then, but the same didn’t hold true for my Murphy Burger. Of course, someone else with different expectations might have found the burger to have been delicious. Anticipation can ruin the moment!
It didn’t have to be that way, though. The second reminder from this experience is that preparation matters in life; so does follow through and accountability. If you know enough about cooking to be let loose in a kitchen, you should know how to inspect your dish to make sure it lives up to the quality you want to be known for. Whether with burgers or vacation travels or job interviews or household budgets or . . . insert your own important moment, commitment, or cross road . . . not everything thrives when left to the last moment or to spontaneity. And of course, I could have returned the burger but on this day other things were of higher priority.
Finally, placing the brie, onions, and apple together in hopes they create a mouthwatering experience reminds me of the importance of playing well together. Whether by choice or circumstance, we frequently find ourselves in situations where our partners are other than the usual suspects. That can be a great opportunity. The thing is we are such creatures of habit that we often assume our ways are accepted by the world and our views are shared by any who is of sound mind and everyone is obligated to take us as we are. In many cases, a little modification on our part – like cheese melting rather than staying firm or onions releasing their sugars in a move that downplays that strong flavor that can bring tears to the eyes – allows us to present a different side of ourselves and contribute something different to the combination. It is like a lead singer who can switch to baritone and give someone else the opportunity to lead, or a guitarist who is equally adept at the banjo and in switching to that instrument gives a whole new sound to the band. It’s not an abandonment of the core of their identity, but rather a move along a scale of possibility that, while different, stays true to who and what they are while contributing something unusual to the moment. I think this world could be a whole lot better if we learned to value being flexible within a range that still keeps us anchored in our integrity. Who knows what new horizons we might discover in those cases?
Thanks, Murphy, for your menu imagination. It’s the kind of creativity that helps build a better world even if it doesn’t always live up to expectations. I’ll gladly return if I’m ever in Rapid City again, and wait to be “Next!” in line.