I have nothing to add, right now, to the grand pantheon of all-time food-wine pairings—Sauternes and foie gras, Chablis and oysters. But I do feel ready to contribute a minor and, to my mind at least, startling footnote.
It goes like this: After hanging drywall all morning, torquing my back into irremediable compressions, and then banging nails all afternoon, I hit the kitchen dirty, tired, and faintly exhilarated—power tools have that effect on me. Yanking open the fridge while my little girls became ever more manic with hunger, I realized that I had a pound or so of decent ground beef. “Meat! Meat!” yelled my A, two-year-old. “Want some! Want some!” So I fired up the grill out on my cluttered back porch, with my sweeping view of San Francisco’s only industrial waterfront—smokestacks and all—and started searing meat. One thing led to another, ketchup hit the bun, a drink was in order, and I had two choices: Merlot or Chardonnay. Slam dunk, I assumed: red meat, red wine. And yet, something about the combo didn’t add up. It was weird. The Merlot only emphasized the hamburger’s insipid core essence—this was a pretty basic burger—and the burger overpowered the Merlot in a way that just seemed like a big, clumsy kid knocking over some wimp. If I’d had a Cabernet, I would’ve gone there, but I didn’t; I only had that Chardonnay, an excellent one from the Hess Collection. And now for the startling part, at least in my mind: That Hess Chardonnay was perfect. Truly perfect. Something about the buttery texture with the burger’s fat, and about the way that Heinz Ketchup leans away from acid and pretty firmly toward sugar. It’s a comfort-food thing.
Try it sometime, and you’ll be surprised. It’ll also trigger a subtle change in your perception of what a cheap backyard burger is all about—and therefore, by extension, your perception of America’s core food identity. Soft and smooth, I mean, and with underlying sweetness, and minimal need for challenge.