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I’m Easing My Election Day Anxiety With American Cheese and Beef Fat

This is crisis cooking, the kind of recipe you really can’t screw up

Two thin beef patties, each layered with melted cheese and onions, on a slice of bread. The burger sandwich is served on a white plate.
In the early days of the pandemic, this writer subsisted on smashed burgers.
Elazar Sontag

May I humbly suggest that, on this historically high-stakes and anxiety-provoking day in the United States of America, you roll out a big ball of beef, find some scraps of cheese and a few slices of onion, and make yourself a smashed burger. It’s this particular comfort food that carried me through the first weeks of the pandemic in March, when leaving home felt more even terrifying than it does now, and all I wanted was to wrap myself in a soft blanket of American cheese and beef fat. In the months since, my eating has become a bit more regulated, and I worked some salads and the occasional green vegetable back into my diet.

Today though, I’m back where I started, wanting nothing more than to eat the kind of meal that makes me slump back with eyes closed and mouth half open. I need to double the American cheese today, and when the first burger is almost finished, I’ll slap another ball of beef into my smoking cast iron pan and have another.

Making a smashed burger is physical work; it’s a smoky mess, and for the few minutes it takes to pull the dish together, you really can’t think about anything else. That’s a perfect project for today, as far as I’m concerned. You’ll start with a big handful of ground beef, about a third of a pound, rolled into a ball and plopped into a smoking cast iron pan slicked with the smallest bit of oil — you won’t need much, you’re working with something in the realm of 80/20 lean-to-fat beef here. Using a metal spatula, maybe even standing on your tippy-toes for leverage, press the meat down, hard, until it’s a thin pancake on the griddle. The edges will crisp in mere moments, you’ll shower down a generous bit of salt and pepper, and pile a handful of thinly sliced white onion onto the patty before flipping it over. The steam from the cooking onion is enough to melt the slice of cheese (or three) you’ve put on top. And like that, lunch is done. Or dinner. Or breakfast, for that matter.

You could use a recipe as your guide, but you probably don’t need it — especially since no one can really focus long enough to read through a recipe today. Put all your weight into your hands as you press down on the beef, and feel confident that you’re doing everything right as you slip the spatula under the craggy edges and flip the meat. This is crisis cooking, the kind of recipe you really can’t screw up. There’s no medium-rare here, no need to pull out a thermometer and check temperature. You want the beef well done, the melty bits of cheese nearly burnt. You could serve it on a potato roll, a crusty piece of sourdough, or slide the meaty mess onto some lettuce and call the thing a salad.

Once you’re all done and the flame is off, there will be a thin sheen of grease coating your kitchen. But that burger will keep you full, warm, satisfied — at least physically — as you head to the polls, phone bank for one more hour, or just sit anxiously checking if election results have started to come in (I can confirm, they have not). As for cleaning up the mess, that’s a project for tomorrow.

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