This is a story about how one of the US’s most iconic writers created a recipe for one of the most iconic US meals.
My quest for this recipe has all the hallmarks of a Hemingway novel packed full of mystery and is set against the backdrop of war. And it all began with a single question. What’s the best burger ever?
I emailed Hemingway Home and Alexa got in touch with me…
So as we know, Ernest Hemingway is a well-known American author. But beyond that, he was an adventure seeker. He was a war correspondent. He tried every type of sport, fishing, boxing, checked out bullfighting, traveled all over. He really lived life to the fullest.
I’d found this burger recipe online, supposedly one from Ernest Hemingway.
Atlantic Constitution. 12th February 2014. Boston. Associated Press:
Materials from the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home were available to researchers for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The collection includes car insurance for a 1941 Plymouth station wagon, a license to carry arms in Cuba, bullfighting tickets, and even a recipe from his fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, for Papa’s favourite hamburger.
The recipe is in the archive of the JFK Presidential Library and one of the archivists, Stacey, was kind enough to answer my questions:
You know, Hemingway spent a lot of his life divided between different homes. He lived in Cuba at this home, La Finca Vigia, from about 1939 to 1960.
Hemingway shot himself in 1961. Relations between the US and Cuba weren’t too great at that time and his wife, Mary, needed help getting back into Cuba to reclaim some documents, some papers, some memorabilia. -
(Alexa) Yeah, so like the story I’ve also heard to piggyback on that was she had to make a deal with the Cuban government, like give me the contents of our safe and I will give you the house.
(Stacey) Hemingway’s widow, Mary Hemingway, needed to get back to Cuba to get all of Hemingway’s stuff out. He’d left his manuscripts, his correspondence, his book collection, a lot of his material was there. And the Kennedy administration actually helped her get a special visa to get into Cuba. She was able to kind of strike a deal where she would take as much as she could from the Finca, their home there, in exchange for donating the house and what was left in it to the Cuban people.
This recipe was among the documents left behind.
I was searching for something in their voice, in the voice of Ernest or Mary Hemingway, something that told me that this was their recipe rather than just something that they owned and used. And then I found it.
Mary, his wife, wrote that they ate the hamburgers to fortify them for tramping through the sage-bush after pheasant, partridge or ducks in Idaho or Wyoming which they visited every autumn. She typed this recipe out for the Women’s Day encyclopaedia of cookery whilst Hemingway was still alive.
It’s a long and complex process, as you might imagine, featuring red wine and piccalilli, capers, and a bit of chemistry to mix up some discontinued ingredients. But it’s not hard to imagine, tucked away in his Cuban home and sheltered from the harsh sun, Hemingway and his wife and his young staff, all of whom called him Papa – that’s where the name of the recipe comes from – tucking into these burgers.
(Stacey) It’s kind of a unique recipe, but also it’s just such a way to humanise this person who can seem really sort of untouchable and how much the legend and myth has sort of overshadowed the man. And like, here’s, you know, he ate hamburgers like everybody else. So I think people find that really interesting and the recipe itself kind of makes you want to try it.
These are the best thing I’ve ever eaten. And I am not kidding.
This recipe, this burger, captures his journeys around the world, his ritzy personality, and the context in which it came to be, abandoned in the middle of a war-torn country, is incredibly Hemingway.
So whilst Stacey is right, Whilst these burgers humanise a man who’s become a legend, even the most mundane aspects of his life, like what he ate for dinner, have helped turn Hemingway into an icon.
He was a master storyteller. And this unassuming sheet of yellowing paper is, in some weird way, yet another of his stories…
From experimenting. Papa’s Favorite Hamburger
There is no reason why a fried hamburger has to turn out gray, greasy, paper-thin and tasteless. You can add all sorts of goodies and flavors to the ground beef — minced mushrooms, cocktail sauce, minced garlic and onion, chopped almonds, a big dollop of Piccalilli, or whatever your eye lights on. Papa prefers this combination.
Some of these ingredients have been discontinued, so…
What to do
Serve in a brioche bun with salad, pickles, and sauce.
28 Feb 2023about podcast contact