My first real job after leaving graduate school was in the Bank of America Center in downtown San Francisco. Like most liberal-arts-educated, underemployed ex-academicians, I made only enough money to get by. My lunches were leftovers or tuna sandwiches brought from home. But once every couple of weeks, I'd splurge and treat myself to a patty melt.
In the lowest level of the BofA building was a cafeteria of the sort that I came to realize was ubiquitous in large office buildings and hospitals: subsidized, with various stations -- a grill, a hot line, a sandwich station and a salad bar. The first time I ventured down there (I'd forgotten to bring a lunch or had nothing to bring), I felt a prick of shame and self-pity. No one in my department ate there, despite the lunchtime stream of secretaries from my floor picking up sandwiches for their bosses.
At the grill, though, they offered a patty melt, redemption for countless cafeteria faults. It didn't take long for me to discover that only if you ordered a rare burger did they cook it from scratch (anything else was precooked and just finished on the grill), so although I prefer hamburgers cooked a little more, my unfailing order became a patty melt, rare. It took awhile to cook; I'd pull out a book and catch up on a few pages while keeping an eye on the progress -- the patty grilling while the onions sizzled on the flattop, next to the rye bread that crisped while the Swiss cheese warmed and softened on top. The result was reliably perfect: a fresh, hot patty melt (even better, it was subsidized by my employer).
In time, I made friends at work and was promoted. The promotion came with a large enough raise to upgrade my lunch splurges; on most Fridays (after too many drinks and not enough sleep most Thursday nights) my friends and I would slouch off to the grill down the street, known for its Bloody Marys and burgers. The drinks were good; the burgers were . . . okay. They were fine, really, but they weren't patty melts.
The fact is inescapable: when compared with a burger, the patty melt is superior. Don't get me wrong; I like burgers when they're well made, with good toppings. But that's the thing: a burger is defined by what else is on it -- a cheeseburger, a mushroom burger, a bacon burger -- or by its ostensible origin -- a French burger, a Southwestern burger. A burger is the sum of its parts, not an entity unto itself, as is the patty melt. The patty melt needs no condiments, no regional variations, no additions. It just is.
Both The Food Lover's Companion and The Food Chronology have plummeted in my estimation: neither includes a mention of the patty melt. (Both have entries for the hamburger, and Food Lover's also includes the Reuben sandwich.) Search the Internet for the history of the patty melt, and you come up empty. Apparently, no one cares when and how the patty melt came to be, who gave birth to this love child of the grilled cheese sandwich and the burger. Theories abound on who first put burger to bun and introduced the ancestor of today's hamburger. Hot debates rage about whether the Reuben was the invention of Arthur Reuben of New York's Reuben's Deli or of a poker-playing Omaha grocer named Reuben Kay. But the patty melt slipped into the repertoire of diner specials without notice, much less fanfare. No one writes conjectural histories about it; when it's mentioned at all, it's as a variation of the hamburger. This is misguided. If I had to imagine the origins of the melt, I'd lean toward this scenario:
A customer -- a traveling salesman, let's say -- walks into a diner sometime in the 40's. He sees the grillman flipping a griddled sandwich on rye bread. Intrigued, he asks what it is. "A Reuben sandwich," the cook answers. "It's the latest rage, from Reuben's Deli in New York." ("You're wrong -- it's from Omaha," a woman's voice calls out from the back of the kitchen.)
"What's in it?" the salesman asks.
"Corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut." ("Russian dressing!" says the voice from the back.)
Maybe the salesman is a patriotic American who eschews all things German during the war years; maybe he just doesn't like sauerkraut. "Could you make one with some of those grilled onions on it instead?" he asks.
"I could," comes the laconic reply. "But I'm out of corned beef."
Undeterred, the salesman suggests, "How about you put one of those hamburger patties on it, then?"
The cook pauses, lifts an eyebrow. "Sure. You don't like it, though, you still have to pay for it."
"It's a deal," says the salesman. "Except," he adds in a whisper, "please don't put Russian dressing on it, okay?"
"Not a chance," says the cook. "She's crazy."
If the salesman had been a local and returned to order the sandwich again and again, history might have remembered him. If the cook had been more imaginative, perhaps he would have given the sandwich a catchy name and legends would have started to form. As it was, the cook made it for the salesman, and later tried it himself. He liked it enough to add to the Specials menu from time to time, especially when he had too many onions and not enough sauerkraut. His daughter -- I've decided that's who it was in the back -- kept trying to get him to add Russian dressing because she'd bought a case of gallon bottles by mistake, but he held firm. (Hey, it's my history. No Russian dressing.)
Despite the lack of a tradition, an official history or an "authentic" recipe, the patty melt is remarkable for the stability of its preparation. Occasionally, a spiritual descendent of that daughter tries to force Russian dressing on it. Once in a while, you find a specious, non-Swiss cheese insinuating its way between the rye bread and onions. But when you order a patty melt, you mostly know what you're getting. The Reuben might come in for bastardization (turkey Reubens, pastrami Reubens), but it's rare to find a melt assaulted in such a way. Why tamper with perfection?
The Platonic ideal of the patty melt starts with a slice of rye bread topped with a thin layer of Swiss cheese. On top of that goes a hot hamburger patty, sautéed onions, and another thin layer of cheese. Ending, of course, with another slice of bread. The bread is buttered and the sandwich goes on a heated griddle so that the bread gets golden brown and the cheese melts. Crunchy bread, melty cheese, onions and beef. Simple, pure, perfect.
Which is not to say that every patty melt in the real world is a good one. Common faults include improperly cooked or insufficient onions or only one layer of cheese, which diminish the power of the patty melt but aren't fatal. But sometimes you get a patty melt so bad, you want to cry for the injustice of it.
My speculative history of the patty melt came to me after an unfortunate experience at a bar and grill, where I ordered a patty melt and my date ordered a Reuben. When we got our order, we realized that they'd switched the set-ups for the sandwiches; my hamburger patty ended up on the sandwich with sauerkraut and Russian dressing, and his corned beef ended up on my patty melt prep. He was content to keep them, and why not? He had corned beef, Swiss cheese and onions on rye. I had a burger with sauerkraut and Russian dressing. I insisted on sending them back to be corrected. (The relationship was doomed.)
And there was a popular burger chain in the San Francisco area whose "patty melt" came on plain, cold rye bread. Not grilled, not griddled, not even toasted. Inadequate onions, and one lone slice of barely melted cheese, which congealed as I tried to eat it.
But the good memories far outweigh the bad ones: early morning patty melts consumed after the bars closed; road trip patty melts when the only restaurant around was Denny's or one of its clones, making a patty melt the only rational dinner choice; the defining moment of grown-up-hood, when my mom let me order a patty melt for breakfast. I don't remember when I first tried one, but I do recall the first time I ever had a patty melt made at home.
I was in college; a fellow philosophy major (well, the only other philosophy major besides me) and I had a few hours to kill between classes. She lived close to campus, so we walked to her house for lunch. "Let's make patty melts" were words I'd never heard before. It had never occurred to me that one could make them at home. But we did, or, more precisely, she did. I sliced cheese.
I didn't begin making patty melts at home right away after that; in fact, it was years before I did. Grilled cheese, yes ("grilled cheese sandwich" is a misnomer, but "griddled cheese sandwich" just doesn't have the right cadence, so grilled it is) -- grilled cheese sandwiches have seen me through lean times and heartbreaks. Tuna melts were a frequent weekend lunch or easy dinner. Even the occasional Reuben came out of my kitchen; despite the essential imbalance in that sandwich -- too skewed toward salt and sour; not enough sweet -- I do like it (hold the Russian dressing, please).
My family didn't make hamburgers at home, except for rare summertime outdoor dinners. Burgers were for restaurants, for special occasions. Cooking hamburger patties at home wasn't part of my repertoire, despite that singular college experience. My series of older, unventilated kitchens in San Francisco apartments discouraged me from starting. But the other week I was wandering through the grocery store, searching more for inspiration than ingredients, and I spied the guys in back packaging ground beef (I like to think they'd just ground it, but my imagination isn't that strong). I thought, "I'll make a burger." I compiled a mental list of necessities: tomatoes, pickles, buns. I picked up a small package of ground chuck and started toward the bread section when it struck me. I could make a patty melt. I had everything in my kitchen already -- rye bread, onions, Gruyere. No other purchases necessary.
I could make a patty melt.
I sailed through the 10-items-or-fewer line (I love my grocery store for its grammatically correct signs) with my beef. I formed the patty and salted it. I sautéed onions, sliced cheese. Heated a cast iron skillet and a griddle. Cooked and assembled, and cooked again. Making a patty melt isn't difficult, but it is time-consuming. Timing is essential, and you can't rush it. As I bit into my sandwich, I felt a kinship with my imaginary salesman, admiration for every grill cook who'd ever made me a patty melt, and gratitude for every bite.
Patty Melt (makes one)
5 oz. ground chuck (more or less, depending on the size of your bread; if you have the time and equipment, grinding your own beef elevates the sandwich to a higher plane)
1 small onion
Two slices of rye bread
Swiss cheese (Gruyere or Emmenthaler are my recommendations, but even supermarket Swiss cheese works) -- sliced thin or grated; you need enough for a thin layer on each slice of bread
- Form the beef into an oval patty slightly larger than the bread slices. Place on a rack and salt both sides heavily. Let rest.
- Meanwhile, slice the onion thin. Heat some butter in a small skillet and sauté the onion until it's very soft and beginning to brown. Set aside.
- Heat a cast iron skillet (or your preferred burger cooking vessel).
- Heat a griddle or large skillet over medium low heat. Butter one side of each slice of bread and lay the slices buttered side down on the griddle. Distribute the cheese evenly over the two pieces of bread. Spread the onions over the cheese on one piece of the bread -- not both, or final assembly is a nightmare.
- While the bread begins to brown and the cheese melts, cook the hamburger patty however you like it. I think medium-rare to medium works best, but the patty melt is forgiving.
- When the meat is done, remove it to the rack and let it rest for a couple of minutes. Place the patty on the slice of bread with onions and top with the other slice. If you've timed it right, the sandwich should need just another minute or so on each side to turn deep golden brown and become the Platonic ideal of a patty melt.
- Eat, enjoy. Thank the salesman.
Janet A. Zimmerman (aka JAZ) is food writer and culinary instructor based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an eGullet Society manager.