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Keep your hands off MY BUN

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NEW YORK -- The world had already seen the doughnut burger, made famous by Paula Deen, which squeezed a beef patty inside a halved Krispy Kreme doughnut instead of a bun. So when New York baker Dominique Ansel invented the croissant-doughnut hybrids known as Cronuts earlier this year, Canadian foodies knew just what to do with them: Slap two around a ground-beef patty! Unfortunately, the Cronut burgers served at a Canadian food festival in August made more than 200 people sick. This past summer also saw the rise of the ramen burger, which uses two fried noodle cakes in lieu of a bun. But the country's leading champion of the burger-with-something-else-taking-the-place-of-the-bun is a Philadelphia restaurant called PYT, which has served burgers made with fried rice patties instead of buns, burgers made with crab cakes instead of buns, and burgers made with fried spaghetti clusters instead of buns, among other variations. This week, PYT is serving its most ambitious creation yet: a burger made with deep-fried Twinkies instead of a bun.

What accounts for our era's explosion of bunless stunt burgers? One harbinger might be KFC's infamous Double Down -- bacon and cheese sandwiched between two breaded chicken patties. The Double Down was not a burger, but it was definitely a stunt, and by all accounts a successful one: It's not every fast-food offering that gets an appearance on the Colbert Report.

The low-carb craze of 10 years ago, which had people eating burgers swathed in iceberg lettuce leaves instead of buns, may also be to blame -- although the recent iterations of the genre are obviously not low-carb. Their over-the-top unhealthiness, in fact, is the key to their archness. But the real joke is on the people who eat these things.

A burger made with deep-fried Twinkies is just another example of foodies valuing foods precisely because most people find them disgusting. Contemporary food culture has taken on a Fear Factor-like ethos, in which he who eats the most bugs and offal without vomiting wins, as Dana Goodyear demonstrates in the upcoming, entertaining Anything That Moves. Still, taste is not my main objection to stunt burgers. Sweet and savoury flavors often complement each other. Who am I to tell PYT that crème filling and ground beef don't mix?

My main objection is that gourmands who replace hamburger buns with deep-fried (fill in the blank) willfully ignore the architectural purpose of hamburger buns. They are not just there to provide flavour contrast to your seared beef patty. They are there to sop up beef juices and whatever delicious condiments you have smeared on your burger. They are also there to prevent your hands from getting messy. Deep-fried things are very, very bad at sopping up juices and sauces -- their crispy, hardened shell acts like NeverWet is supposed to -- and, worse, they actively contribute to getting your hands messy. A burger sandwiched between two deep-fried Twinkies or bundles of noodles will fall apart after the first bite; it has no structural integrity. You may as well put a Sno Ball on a plate next to a slice of meatloaf and call it a day.

Perhaps you are rolling your eyes right now, wondering why I'm taking the Twinkie burger at face value. Perhaps it's clear to you stunt burgers should be understood as edible art -- as a morsel of tongue-in-cheek commentary on contemporary culture -- rather than a serious lunch offering. The problem with this reading: The conceit of the droll postmodern hamburger is tired. As Alison Pearlman chronicled earlier this year in Smart Casual, chefs have been imitating and reinventing the burger for years -- and the results mostly feel like rewarmed pop art. Pearlman summarizes what another author described as a "haute burger skirmish": In 2003, fancy restaurants competed by developing increasingly expensive and ludicrously rich burgers containing ingredients like foie gras and truffles. (Those highbrow, winking burgers have since been sent up by a $666 "douche burger" containing caviar, lobster and gold.) Pearlman also describes a macaron-based dessert made to look like a McDonald's cheeseburger that was introduced by a Chicago restaurant in 2009.

These days, crazy burgers are common enough the food gossip blog Eater has a topic tag devoted to the genre. In other words, novelty burgers aren't novel, and they don't push the envelope (except calorically). A deep-fried Twinkie burger doesn't say anything new about American culture -- it just fecklessly recombines familiar symbols of excess. And then falls apart.

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2013 A2

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