What pork teaches us, and the Burger Paradox
ANN ARBOR, Mich. –- I have a buddy named Bill who does not eat pork, even though he is a Methodist. He claims the pig is an “unclean” animal, though I don’t really know what he means by that. Somewhere along the way, he got it into his head that pigs were not to be eaten.
This is mere masochism. People who don’t eat pork for nonreligious reasons deprive themselves of a manifestation of God’s love. Pork is glorious. Pork tastes the way other meat should taste. Pork sausage makes bad meals good. Bacon tastes like victory. A well-made pulled-pork sandwich is the most succulent sandwich known to man.
I say all that as a way of talking about my sandwich experiences in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is where I had a porchetta sandwich for the first time. I’ll get to that in a minute.
But first, I have to talk about Blimpy Burger.
Near as I can tell, Blimpy Burger is the place all Michigan alumni long to visit when they come back in town to watch Jim Tressel’s sweater vest emotionlessly bludgeon their football team every other year. It is a tiny building with a lunch-line serving method. I’m told the line often stretches out the door, though when I went on Saturday night it wasn’t quite that far. I waited about 15 minutes.
There’s basically nothing to the place. Maybe 20 seats in the whole joint, a guy to take your order, a guy to cook it and a guy to wrap the burger in the paper and ring you up. It has been in business since 1953, accepts cash only and has lots of “best of Ann Arbor” awards on the wall.
The patties, made from chuck they grind themselves every day, are tiny. The cook – who looks exactly like you’d expect, a skinny guy with stringy long hair and a huge boil on his neck – pulls out little balls of beef, plops them on the grill and smashes them down. The menu says five of them add up to a half pound, so pretty much everybody orders a triple or a “quad.” The brilliance of this system is that it makes the burgers completely customizable, and you have plenty of options. For example, I had crushed a workout in the hotel about an hour before and, thus, was pretty hungry and considering going with the quad. But I also wanted egg and bacon on it. So I met in the middle and ordered a triple with egg, bacon and blue cheese on a Kaiser roll. Topped it with tomato, ketchup and mustard and got a side of fries (which were steak fries, the worst cut in the fry kingdom).
This was a winning play.
It was just the right amount of food, was greasy as a sports agent and landed with a healthy thud at the bottom of my stomach. A sign reads, “We have low-fat items: water.”
Blimpy Burger is one of those places that makes you feel nostalgic for things you didn’t even experience. My parents weren’t yet born when Blimpy Burger opened, but I still felt a longing for times gone by, before everyone stopped smoking and became obese. A time when doctors prescribed cocaine and finger bangings to restless housewives to cure their “hysteria.” A time when you were expected to be drinking at work.
The sad irony is that we made ourselves fat by going to places like Blimpy Burger, and so there is something paradoxical in the nostalgia for it. We long for a time when Americans were skinnier and could eat at Blimpy Burger with a free mind, yet the result of that very longing for meat topped with meat is why we can’t go to Blimpy Burger with a free mind anymore.
Blimpy Burger is like a woman you loved so much you drove her away. Blimpy Burger is a window into the hearts of men.
Where do I rank it? Oh, I don’t know. I’d rather not get into that. It would just cheapen the experience. It doesn’t really matter whether it is better than, say, Five Guys or the West Coast Saloon or wherever. It was good, and if I lived in Ann Arbor, it would be a treat to go there and I’ll just leave it at that.
I’ll also move on to The Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery.
As I’ve noted here before, the brewpub is my favorite restaurant genre, so as I set out for postgame dinner Sunday night, I asked Brady McCollough of the Kansas City Star, a Michigan Man, where I could find one. I sort of stumbled upon The Jolly Pumpkin as I was looking for the Arbor Brewing Co., which was closed.
Once inside, however, I realized I was in the most exciting brewpub I’ve ever encountered. The menu was dazzling. Everything made there is made in-house, including the whiskey, rum and vodka (the bartender joked with some women that the vodka was extracted from a vodka-lactating cow). I ordered a beer, then followed it with a cocktail of rye whiskey, grapefruit juice and maple syrup. Can you imagine how exciting it is to order a cocktail that involves homemade rye whiskey and maple syrup? Half the fun of this place was reading the menu. When I ordered the cocktail, the bartender pulled out a clear jug full of cloudy brown liquid –- the rye –- and splashed it into a rocks glass. If romance is about mystery and anticipation, I was in a swoon. I was willing to let this cocktail have its way with me.
In time, my porchetta sandwich was delivered.
As you know if you’re a regular here, I have a strained relationship with ciabatta bread. I can’t avoid it. Even though I don’t like ciabatta, I am constantly ordering sandwiches made with ciabatta. For some reason, people are always putting meat, cheese and veg combinations I like between ciabatta. It’s outrageous.
Nonetheless, once I read the description of the porchetta – slow roasted herb and garlic infused pork shoulder on a ciabatta roll with salsa verde aioli, housemade fennel sauerkraut and organic spinach — there was no way I wasn’t ordering it. Pork shoulder? Are you kidding me? Do I really need to say my order out loud, or are my eyes giving it away?
The pork on this sandwich was smooth as butter and softer than a European power forward. It had a faint but unmistakable aroma and taste of bacon, even though there was no bacon on the sandwich. The juices from the pork soaked into the ciabatta, rendering it good.
There was nothing overpowering about this sandwich. It did not need to make a big show of itself. It was just quietly confident. Some sandwiches are out to prove something. BOOM! Bacon and cheese and onions and garlic roaring all up in your face. These are great, obnoxious sandwiches. We need these. We need them for the same reasons we need people like Donald Trump and Kanye West.
But this wasn’t like that. This was smooth. It was subtle. It wasn’t trying too hard. It knew it was good, it knew it was original and it didn’t so much care what you thought. This pork sandwich possessed the basic qualities that make something cool. This sandwich was Tom Brady.
I had a wheat IPA with my sandwich that I am 90 percent sure had spent some time in an oak barrel (curiously, I am equally sure the whiskey had not). It almost smelled like wine when you first put your nose in it and had a fruity character. As with the Blimpy Burger, I don’t really have much interest in rating it against other beers. I think we should let these things inhabit their own worlds a little more often. I’ll just say that, like everything else at the Jolly Pumpkin, it was interesting and memorable. It made you think about stuff. It made you interested in the process. It wasn’t art, but it resembled it, if that makes sense. Consumption was only a part of the experience.
And that, friends, is looking at life through the prism of pork.