The Grampy Burger

Rice Krispies, apple, and French dressing are three of the not-so-secret ingredients in the Bonisteel clan's crazy—and cherished—family hamburger recipe. Gourmet Live's Sara Bonisteel shares all
The Grampy Burger

The legendary Grampy Burger. Inset: Roscoe O. and Lillian Bonisteel.

As far as family recipes go, ours really has only one, and it's a doozy, with a taste, texture, and origin story that makes it about as original as it gets: the Grampy Burger.

It wasn't until I made the burgers for some friends at college that I realized the Grampy was something truly special. Although, if I'm not mistaken, my guests might have used the word weird.

Containing chunks of apple, Rice Krispies, tomato pieces, onions, and more, it's as if the farm bureau of southern Michigan, where my great-grandfather Roscoe O. ran a successful law practice in the mid–20th century, had co-opted a sandwich of its very own.

Over the years, I've tried to spread the Grampy gospel, going so far as to enter it in a casual burger cook-off, where the Grampy lost to a "pH-balanced" burger made with onion and mustard powder by a friend who commented, snickering, that my entry was just a glorified meatball.

Family lore gives credit to Great-Grandpa Roscoe for this inventive dish. But equal credit must go to his wife, Lillian, who submitted the recipe to a community cookbook under the moniker "Super Hamburgers," thus giving our branch of the family a printed record of the Grampy's early history, not to mention a master recipe.

It's a burger unlike any other, with chunks of charred apple mingling with the occasional puff of rice, and I wanted to get to the bottom of how it came to be. With a ratio of filler to meat at approximately 2:1, I had a feeling it might have been cribbed from a Depression-era cook-booklet.

My aunt Nancy, who is both the keeper of family culinary secrets and chief Grampy Burger maker, has a copy of the Ann Arbor Women's City Club cookbook where the Super Hamburger recipe can be found, but the cover and first seven pages are missing, so we're unclear about the year it was printed. I found and ordered a 1969 version of the club's Culinary Cues cookbook online, but alas, Super Hamburgers were nowhere to be found. Lillian died in 1971, so the recipe must predate the '69 version, as Cues II wasn't published until the early '80s.

So I called some distant relations. The children of my great-aunt recall eating Grampy Burgers up north in Traverse City, at Roscoe's lake house, though the aunt in question, Bets, is also fuzzy on the burger's genesis. (Bets and her brood tried to conjure Grampy memories during an unexpected conference call with me not so long ago, but they quickly got sidetracked by talk of Roscoe's big Cadillac and going out to eat on visits to the grandparents' house in Ann Arbor.) Lillian's master recipe does note the burger is "especially suited to outdoor grill" (quotes hers, not mine), so it makes a certain amount of sense to think of the Grampy as a "vacation burger."

Online recipe searches for "Rice Krispies and hamburger" turn up nothing like our family's recipe. Maybe Great-Grampy got the idea from a Kellogg; he did loom large in the state's Republican Party back in the day, counting Herbert Hoover among his friends.

But back to Lillian—what we do know about my great-grandmother is that she knew her way around a kitchen and could entertain a crowd (maybe this is how the Grampy came to be—Rice Krispies make a frugal filling to stretch the more expensive meat for the added mouths of extended family members). When her eldest daughter, my great aunt Jean, got married and moved to Chicago, Lillian came to the Thanksgiving rescue, penning an extensive letter filled with recipes and step-by-step details on exactly how to put together the big dinner. Lillian was an adventurous eater, too, detailing her experiences with sampling sushi in Tokyo in a letter home to the grandkids during a 1958 trip to Japan. All that kneeling, she wrote, was "rough on the knees."

The Grampy Burger of my youth differs from the original. As Aunt Nancy says, "Over the years we've weeded out the things we hate"—namely the celery, ground pork, and French dressing. "I never measure anything," Nancy says. But for this story, I wanted to go back to the original not-so-secret recipe. The one that gets Nancy rolling her eyes with a "Grandma, what were you thinking?"

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