Ernest Hemingway’s Favorite Hamburger Recipe

pappa hamburger

Image via Cre­ative Com­mons

Ear­li­er this year the food writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan stum­bled across an arti­cle in the Boston Globe describ­ing a trove of dig­i­tized doc­u­ments from Ernest Hem­ing­way’s home in Cuba that were recent­ly donat­ed to the John F. Kennedy Pres­i­den­tial Library and Muse­um, home of Hem­ing­way’s per­son­al archives. One line in the arti­cle caught her eye: “And the more mun­dane, like his instruc­tions to the house­hold staff, includ­ing how to pre­pare his ham­burg­ers: ground beef, onions, gar­lic, India rel­ish, and capers, cooked so the edges were crispy but the cen­ter red and juicy.”

Tan, a Hem­ing­way fan and the author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Mem­oir of Food and Fam­i­ly, set out to find the recipe and try it. She report­ed her expe­ri­ences this week on the Paris Review Dai­ly blog. “I had made burg­ers before, count­less times on count­less evenings,” Tan writes. “This one was dif­fer­ent; I was­n’t mak­ing just any burg­er — I was attempt­ing to recre­ate Hem­ing­way’s ham­burg­er. And it had to be just right.”

Here is Papa’s favorite recipe for pan-fried ham­burg­ers, as report­ed by Tan:


1 lb. ground lean beef

2 cloves, minced gar­lic

2 lit­tle green onions, fine­ly chopped

1 heap­ing tea­spoon, India rel­ish

2 table­spoons, capers

1 heap­ing tea­spoon, Spice Islands sage

Spice Islands Beau Monde Sea­son­ing — 1/2 tea­spoon

Spice Islands Mei Yen Pow­der — 1/2 tea­spoon

1 egg, beat­en in a cup with a fork

About 1/3 cup dry red or white wine

1 table­spoon cook­ing oil

What to do–

Break up the meat with a fork and scat­ter the gar­lic, onion and dry sea­son­ings over it, then mix them into the meat with a fork or your fin­gers. Let the bowl of meat sit out of the ice­box for ten or fif­teen min­utes while you set the table and make the sal­ad. Add the rel­ish, capers, every­thing else includ­ing wine and let the meat sit, qui­et­ly mar­i­nat­ing, for anoth­er ten min­utes if pos­si­ble. Now make your fat, juicy pat­ties with your hands. The pat­ties should be an inch thick, and soft in tex­ture but not run­ny. Have the oil in your fry­ing pan hot but not smok­ing when you drop in the pat­ties and then turn the heat down and fry the burg­ers about four min­utes. Take the pan off the burn­er and turn the heat high again. Flip the burg­ers over, put the pan back on the hot fire, then after one minute, turn the heat down again and cook anoth­er three min­utes. Both sides of the burg­ers should be crispy brown and the mid­dle pink and juicy.

Spice Islands stopped mak­ing Mei Yen Pow­der sev­er­al years ago, accord­ing to Tan. You can recre­ate it, she says, by mix­ing nine parts salt, nine parts sug­ar and two parts MSG. “If a recipe calls for 1 tea­spoon of Mei Yen Pow­der,” she writes, “use 2/3 tsp of the dry recipe (above) mixed with 1/8 tsp of soy sauce.”

Hem­ing­way’s wid­ow, Mary, pub­lished the same basic recipe in 1966 in the sixth vol­ume of the Wom­an’s Day Ency­clo­pe­dia of Cook­ery. The one-pound of beef was intend­ed for only two serv­ings. For more on Hem­ing­way’s ham­burg­er recipe and his culi­nary tastes, includ­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing list of gourmet foods he had shipped from New York to his home in Cuba, be sure to read Tan’s arti­cle at the Paris Review.

Update: You can also now enjoy Ernest Hemingway’s Sum­mer Camp­ing Recipes.

Pho­to: Ernest Hem­ing­way Col­lec­tion, John F. Kennedy Pres­i­den­tial Library and Muse­um, Boston.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

18 (Free) Books Ernest Hem­ing­way Wished He Could Read Again for the First Time

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer, 1934

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

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Comments (9)
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  • Edward Whalley says:

    Sounds like you’re over­think­ing the recipe. This is like tak­ing Queen Rade­gun­de’s bread, and think­ing, well, it could­n’t have been just salt and flour and water and hon­ey. No, it’s got to have been far­ro, and she could have added some spice, or some herbs, and well, it might have leav­ened of its own, and…and all of a sud­den, you get the fla­vor, not of the Dark Ages, but of our own neu­rot­ic times. nnnnWhen a Roman recipe asks me for “juice of sweet grapes”, I use the sweet­est grapes I can find, con­fi­dent that the same cook might well have liked Welch’s grape juice if they’d had it. But again, I don’t look at it and say, let’s throw in a mari­nade, ’cause these Romans would have mar­i­nat­ed every­thing. nnnnAbout all he asks for is some nice top­pings, and that he does­n’t mind some E. coli in the quest for a good juicy burg­er. nnnnCon­sid­er your his­tor­i­cal cook licence revoked.

  • eric says:

    add,artesanal good cuban brand

  • eric says:

    add,artesanal good cuban brand

  • Gee says:

    Just made EH ham­burg­er, had to impro­vise on India rel­ish! Mei yen pow­der, and the beau monde pow­der nAl­so added some bread crumbs because the pat­ties weren’t hold­ing togeth­er. Fried it a bit longer than recipe.nnVery good, moist, and taste­ful. Will defi­ant­ly make it again

  • Gee says:

    Auto com­plete error, def­i­nite­ly

  • KarenJ503 says:

    When I read through the ingre­di­ents and the instruc­tions, this recipe seems very much like a recipe I used many years ago for “ground beef sir­loin chateaubriand”.

    It cooked up like a glo­ri­fied meat loaf, served with a sauce glaze over toast, and was deli­cious.

    My recipe was in an old hard­back book, but this online recipe is sim­i­lar:

  • penny says:

    You made a recipe that was beyond com­plex, when Hem­ing­way’s was quite sim­ple. That said, your homage recipe is prob­a­bly deli­cious. And so prob­a­bly is Hem­ing­way’s burg­er. Still, two dis­tinct recipes.

  • Matt says:

    It’s two and a half years lat­er, but the fact that you’re thick­er than a whale omelette rings across the ages. This *is* Hem­ing­way’s recipe, you dimwit. There’s a scan of it here: It’s a word for word match for the one above.

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