I was in the mood for a post-apocalyptic road story and just finished Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. A great tale. Made 900+ pages go by like 300.
I recently changed the landing page of this web site using the guy below with the implication that he is Leopold Larson, but in actuality, I got him off a site for free images. I have Gimp on a couple of my computers and when I have a free moment, I like to put together images related to selling the books.
It seems to me my books should appeal to three sets of people: (1) people who appreciate good writing, (2) recovering people, and (3) people who like legal thrillers.
I did the following picture of folks in recovery.
Advice from a fictional character on how to find a lawyer you will love and who will love you back.
There are 1.35 million lawyers in the United States. A handful, like me, are fictional. Most are not. I practice law in a two-room office on the east side of Portland, Oregon. I mostly help people fight over inheritances or put their demented relatives in care homes. Over a couple of decades of doing this, I met a lot of lawyers and a lot of clients. This is my guide to the uninitiated on how to hire a lawyer.
Understand Who Lawyers Are
Lawyers are everyday tradesmen who wear suits.
Lawyers in private practice include geniuses, idiots, saints, and psychopaths, but as a group, they are statistically average Joes and Josephines. The strategies that work for getting along with mechanics, retail clerks, accountants, programmers, cops, and the person behind the counter at Arby’s will work with lawyers. So read How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, a book that has been rewritten by others a thousand times, and you are probably good to go when it comes to lawyers. But you won’t do that, so you get this article instead.
Like everybody else, lawyers want to think and talk about themselves most of the time. If you let them do that, they will love you and probably won’t even send you a bill. The fly in that ointment is that you are also an ordinary person. You want to talk about yourself and your stuff, and you think that if you are paying someone for legal advice you ought to get to burden that person with all your boring problems. And that is the tension from which the negotiation begins.
The world does not have too many lawyers and the world is not too litigious.
Some people think there are too many lawyers, that society is too litigious, and there should be a better way of doing things. That is wrong. Human life is complicated and so are the rules we live by. Read Leviticus. The laws from three thousand years ago when all we had to do was herd goats and start religions are really really complicated.
Remember Moses? He is leading his flock across the desert after leaving Egypt. One day the elders come to him and say, “Moses, you are spending so much time resolving disputes among your followers that you don’t have time for all your important leadership stuff.” So they decide to appoint twelve judges to take over the job of resolving legal disputes among a bunch of people wandering in the desert. If they needed twelve judges, you can imagine how many lawyers they needed.
The lesson is that lawyers are just another of the professionals we rely upon to make it through life. They are neither special nor despicable. You are not a victim because you need a lawyer any more than you are a victim because you have to hire a doctor, accountant, barber, or plumber.
Lawyers are Unhappy
Practicing law is a crappy job, and most lawyers are unhappy doing it. In those job satisfaction surveys the State Bar Associations put out to measure the happiness of their membership, lawyers report that they would rather be doing just about anything than the private practice of law.
Most lawyers didn’t set out to be lawyers. There are a few who were inspired by a movie or a relative or some childhood interaction with the court system and who became lawyers because that’s what they always wanted to be. Those are few and far between and once those few have achieved their dream they are not any happier than the others. The majority of lawyers went into it because law looked like a way for someone with a middle-class background and a liberal arts degree to make some money and thereby stay in the middle class. It if wasn’t law school, Walmart loomed on the horizon.
Once these lost souls paid out thousands for law school and clawed their way into the profession, Walmart didn’t look so bad. On most days, the people at Walmart are fairly happy. In law offices, somebody is always mad at somebody else and afraid that something bad is going to happen. Fear and anger, day after day, takes its toll on everybody it touches.
The seminars sponsored by the Bar to show people ways to use a law degree without having to practice law are always full. Happy lawyers are the ones who don’t practice law. When you see those legal commentators on television opining on legal issues, they seem happy. That is because they aren’t lawyers. They don’t have real clients or real cases. They are entertainers who get to put on makeup and discuss legal subjects without the pressure of having real clients with real cases to win. They are happy because they aren’t practicing law.
Lawyers are driven by fear.
A lot of my clients were afraid to meet me. My title “attorney-at-law” is threatening. But I am also afraid of them. Most of the time clients bring me problems that I cannot solve. It isn’t that I don’t have legal skills. It is that the law does not provide anything close to the solution the client thinks it does. I face having to give them the bad news and then try to get money out of them for doing it. Who wants to do that?
Everybody who shows up at a lawyer’s office is a potential source of money, but also a potential Bar complaint or malpractice accusation. In my misbegotten youth, the Bar used to advise me, “if something about the client feels wrong, it is.” But when a spooky client, or even one just a little sketchy waived a fat check in front of me, I forgot all about what the Bar had told me and took the case. And every single time, I suffered for it. As I aged, I got better at it, but never perfect. That nice little old lady could easily turn out to be the one complaining to the Bar and papering the internet with horrible one-star reviews. Every lawyer lives with the fear that you are the one who will make it your life’s mission to destroy his practice.
Lawyers fear losing cases even more than they fear their clients. Some cases settle with no clear winner or loser, but the true win-win solution mediators love to talk about is a rare bird. A lawyer who goes to court often is going to lose cases, and lawyers hate that. Clients don’t want to hear that court is a crapshoot and even the best case can go down the drain if a witness fails to show up, people freeze on the stand, or the judge is having a horrible awful day for reasons that have nothing to do with the case. A lot of lawyers are so afraid of losing cases that they give up going to court at all.
This is a lot of fear. It is no secret that people who are afraid cover it up with bravado. Men are worse than women, but women in the legal profession who are trying to mimic male fear-based bravado — even though there is no need for it in the first place — do it badly and with greater ridiculousness than men. When your lawyer is scared he drops names of the powerful people he knows, mentions prestigious organizations of which he is a member, regales you with tales of past court victories, mentions his summer home or some other bauble that he owns (implying that he got it from his successful practice rather than inheriting it from his mother) and generally says whatever needs to be said to convince you he isn’t deathly afraid of showing up a work every morning.
The thing to remember is that no matter how afraid you may feel walking into the lair of a lawyer, it is highly likely that the lawyer is more afraid of you than you are of it. If you see the bravado, you will know what I am saying is true, and you must treat the fear-filled lawyer as you would a frightened animal. That trembling lawyer has skills you need.
Lawyers Make a Lot of Mistakes
Law is complicated stuff and lawyers, being ordinary people, make a lot of mistakes. A lawyer who goes to court has the state and federal statutes to deal with, the rules of procedure, the local court rules for each venue in which he or she practices, cases to know, and court staff to keep happy. And all of this changes every time the legislature convenes, or the court administrators decide that things must improve. Mistakes are made. Lots of them
Lawyers know that mistakes are made. I used to tell my assistant that we didn’t have to be mistake-free — just make fewer errors than the other guy. However, lawyers are pressured to cover up their mistakes. I once wrote an article for a Bar publication in which I commented about all the mistakes I made — misunderstanding the facts, getting the parties mixed up with some other case, getting the law wrong, filing papers in the wrong court, the list could go on and on — and the people at the Bar swooped down on me saying that I couldn’t say that. It was a matter of liability, they said. I didn’t have to lie about the mistakes — just keep quiet.
I was trained in that tradition and it was hard to break. I remember the first time I gathered my courage and told a client straight out that my mistakes had screwed up his case. I thought I would die and that didn’t happen. I thought he would be furious, and that didn’t happen either. He laughed. He then said he never thought he would see the day when a lawyer admitted a mistake. After that it was easier to admit my errors, but not all that much. I was still a lawyer, we make mistakes but we don’t admit them. That is the way it is.
Lawyers are Not Rich
The median income for lawyers in 2018 was $120,000. Lawyers in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC — high cost-of-living areas tend toward the higher incomes. Lawyers in Idaho and Missouri, where the cost-of-living is less — tend toward the lower ones. Some lawyers make lots and lots of money. Some lawyers sell blood to pay their rent. But in the scheme of things the lawyer you go see probably works very hard at a job that he or she doesn’t like and doesn’t make a lot of money doing it. If you are talking to an older lawyer with an established practice, he or she may well be making more than the $120,000 median, but if you are talking to a younger lawyer still getting his or her feet wet, it is a pretty good bet that the lawyer is on the low side of the income curve and is also burdened with student loan debt.
I charge $300 an hour, but that doesn’t translate into a huge income. That hourly rate has to pay for my office, my assistant, all the expenses of maintaining a license, insurance, and the myriad of taxes and fees that fall upon a small business. If your lawyer is a salaried employee in a firm, the powers that be in that firm are not paying that associate any more than necessary to keep the associate from jumping to another firm. Just because your legal bill looks large to you does not mean it is making the lawyer rich.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of rich people with law degrees, but they ordinarily don’t practice law. Congress is filled with lawyers who are both rich and powerful, but they don’t have any cases. Judge Judy on afternoon television is reputed to be the richest television personality on the air. But she isn’t a real judge and those are not real litigants.
The bottom line is that when you are dealing with your lawyer, keep in mind that he or she needs money. Your lawyer is not rolling in dough and cannot afford to pay court costs for you, lend you money, put you on a payment plan, or work for free. The fact that you have a really good case does not change any of this.
So lawyers are ordinary, unhappy, fearful, mistake-prone, and in need of money? How does knowing that help me?
The lawyer has skills that you need. Law is not the place for do-it-yourselfers. You need the lawyer to use those skills on your behalf. When you first meet the lawyer, don’t sit there like a rock waiting for the lawyer to sell his services; sell yourself to her, and then sell your case. Try to reduce the lawyer’s fear of you by assuring her that you are not a threat, that you do not expect perfection or miracles, and that you can pay for the services you need. The overriding strategy is to convince the lawyer that working on your case will not make her any more unhappy than she already is.
When you first meet your prospective attorney, make a human connection before you get down the business. Find some interests you have in common — music, sports, origami, bondage — and talk about that for a few minutes. If you hire the lawyer, repeat this ritual every time you talk to her. Ask how she is doing. Make human contact before you talk business. Do this every time and don’t forget.
Let your prospect know that you understand and sympathize with his financial need. I recall a client who told me in the process of coming to an agreement about a case that she wanted me to be well paid for my skill and expertise. It was flattering and reassuring all in one statement. It established from the outset that we were not going to be adversaries when it came to the money.
Assure the lawyer that you are not the person who will be stalking him two years from now. There is a Scandinavian saying, “Act normal, that’s crazy enough.” Adopt it. Don’t bad-mouth your previous lawyer if you had one. Your lawyer will hear that and wonder what you will be saying about him six months from now. Don’t even bad-mouth the people on the other side of the case any more than the relevant facts of the case require.
Acknowledge openly your understanding that a lawyer cannot guarantee a certain result. Tell your prospect about your fears that the case might not go your way and ask for an honest assessment, even if the news is not what you want to hear. Be firm that you want honesty, even if the news may be bad.
If your lawyer turns to bravado or grandiosity, stay calm and let him play himself out. Affirm the lawyer’s accomplishments, or contacts, or whatever it is he is throwing up to hide his fear. Grandiosity like this is a form of flight/fight and usually wears itself out. Assure your prospect that you do not expect infallibility or miracles, only that the two of you be able to work together to get the best result possible. Tell him that you understand that it could be a bumpy ride and that you can handle setbacks along the way. You are soothing a frightened animal. Be patient and calm.
Some clients used to try to hire me over the phone. I ordinarily declined and told the person I only work for clients I like. There are a million lawyers out there — 1.25 million to be precise — and clients should only hire one they like. We won’t know if we like each other until we meet. At the meeting, I learned whether I, an impecunious, fearful, mistake-making, legal technician could get along with the person who proposed to hire me. It wasn’t that the relationship would be more important to me than the money, it was that without the relationship the money thing was not going to work out anyway. As a client, you may think you don’t care about the relationship either. All you want is a successful resolution of your legal problem. However, if you skip the relationship step, the chances of getting a good result are greatly diminished.
Step 1: Don’t be a nightmare client.
Here is the nightmare client. He shows up and says he wants to hire me because he started the case representing himself but the judge who looked at his papers was prejudiced against him. He hired two other lawyers but they both turned out to be incompetent so he fired them and made Bar complaints against them. His case is actually very easy and it is so clear that he should win that wrapping it up will be easy for me — so easy that I can get paid by collecting attorney fees from the other side after we win. Oh, and by the way, there is a hearing scheduled for the following afternoon to dismiss his case and I need to be there. Don’t be this guy.
Let’s unpack this and set some rules.
- Don’t practice law. Don’t go off representing yourself, mess it up, and then go to a lawyer asking her to fix it. Lawyers spend enough time fixing their own mistakes. They hate trying to fix yours. If you take up law as a hobby, follow through and live with the results.
- Don’t tell your lawyer how bad your other lawyers were. Most lawyers within a particular specialty have the same set of skills. The idea that the quality or price of your lawyer makes a lot of difference in the final result is television stuff, not real life. When you spend a lot of time insulting other lawyers, or other people generally, all you do is convince your listener that you are an ass.
- Don’t evaluate your own case. You came to the lawyer because you thought you had a good case or the person suing you had a bad one. You are subject to confirmation bias — giving great weight to the facts that support your point of view and discounting the facts that don’t. This is a huge problem in law, and it will infect your lawyer as well. Don’t let it control you from the outset. You came to a lawyer for an expert opinion on what to do with your legal problem. Don’t tell him what the end result has to be.
- Don’t assess how easy or hard a legal task will be. The lawyer does this stuff for a living. You sound like a moron telling him how easy or hard the job will be.
- Don’t come in with no money. Have a realistic plan for paying the lawyer. Remember, your lawyer is not rich and simply cannot afford to do a bunch of work for you without getting paid. If you are seeing a lawyer for a personal injury case you may want a contingency fee, but you can at least show up with enough money to pay court costs and related expenses. I used to make clients in probate cases put up a retainer even though I knew I probably wouldn’t need it. The money showed that the client was willing to put some skin in the game. The worst and most demanding clients are the ones who think their legal services are free. Don’t be one of those.
- Don’t ask your lawyer to un-lose the case. I have had this happen fairly often. A client went to court unrepresented or with another lawyer, and lost. The client didn’t like that. Guess what, nobody likes losing but half the people who start a trial lose. The client wants a do-over with a different lawyer. It can seldom be done and every lawyer wants a fighting chance to win a case. When you show up with a case you already lost and want the lawyer to make that loss go away, you have worried about this too much.. Take your lumps, accept the loss, and carry on down the road.
- Be honest about the weaknesses in your case or position. Every case has weaknesses. If your case, as far as you are concerned, doesn’t have any, you are deluded. Tell your lawyer, “I would tell you about the weaknesses in my case, but I am too enmeshed in the drama to be able to see them.”
Step 2 — Don’t hire a nightmare lawyer
The United States is filled with lawyers. Every year some of them go to jail or get committed to mental institutions. Some declare bankruptcy. Some just disappear. Some commit crimes and get away with it. Some do incredible acts of kindness and are never recognized. It is a crapshoot out there, but you can increase the odds of a good lawyer-client relationship by doing the following:
- Check Disciplinary History with the Bar. I am a trusting person. I trust people to act in the future the way they have acted in the past. Bar Associations will allow you to look at how many times a lawyer has been disciplined by the Bar for ethical violations. If a lawyer has been disciplined a lot, you might want to steer clear. Be careful, however, some ethical violations are technical and don’t really hurt any clients. On most days I am just a stone’s throw away from being disbarred, but I am a fictional lawyer so my misdeeds don’t hurt anybody. Additionally, the people at the Bar who monitor lawyers are often pretentious prigs. Look at what your prospect did and consider it in the overall picture.
- Check Online Reviews. Take a look at Google and Yelp and Avvo for reviews. Take these with a grain of salt, because a lawyer who is willing to take risks will lose cases, and clients who lose cases can be vengeful.
- Weed out the Drunks and Drug Addicts. About ten percent of lawyers are impaired by drug and alcohol use. They are hard to pick out because they hide it, but if you pick up that the lawyer is an active alcoholic, run away. Like most fictional lawyers, I am an alcoholic, but I don’t drink anymore, and thus I behave somewhat like a normal person. I have had clients say they won’t hire me because they hate alcoholics, even ones who don’t drink. I have other clients, also in recovery from addiction, who hire me because I am a recovering alcoholic. You should get the lawyer you want.
- Avoid “Busy” Lawyers. The legal profession has a fair number of Type A lawyers who secretly think that the word “workaholic” is a compliment. These guys are dangerous nutballs. They are “busy” all the time and your work will not get done because they are always busy. Your phone calls will go unanswered and your emails will disappear into the void. How do you know if you have happened upon a busy lawyer? He will tell you. He will tell you over and over again. If your lawyer ever mentions how busy he is, stop the conversation right there and ask directly, “Are you so busy that you will not be able to give my case your full and careful attention?” If he waivers, run like hell.
- Dump Braggarts, Blowhards, and Show Offs. These guys will not be capable of delivering bad news. If things start to go south they will lie to you, disappear and end up blaming you. These guys should not be practicing law — they should be in politics.
- Pick Someone Who Practices in a Place that Makes You Comfortable. Some lawyers practice in a skyscraper where the receptionist brings you a cappuccino while you await your appointment. This sort of opulence scares some clients. Other lawyers practice out of the den in their house while tending to children and dogs. Some clients are not comfortable with this level of informality. Find a lawyer who practices in a place and in a manner that makes you feel at ease.
- Pick someone you like. This is the most important one. Did I mention that there are over a million lawyers out there to choose from? You can get one you like and you are entitled to one you like. Once you have that, the battle is half over.
What kind of firm fits you — Big Firm, Small Firm, or Sole Practitioner?
If you decide to hire a big firm for your legal needs you will get high-quality representation. You are likely to also get a great view from the offices, well-brewed coffee while you wait to speak to your lawyer, and posh conference rooms. Your lawyer will have a bevy of receptionists, paralegals, assistants and baristas at his beck and call to assist with your case. As you might expect all this skill, professionalism and opulence comes at a cost — a huge cost. Be prepared to pay and pay and pay some more.
I don’t know if the big-firm lawyers are the most unhappy of all lawyers but they are certainly in the running. The big-firm lawyers are recruited out of the top schools and can earn a lot of money from the very first day. In return, they often have to work 80–90 hours a week so they can bill enough to pay that big salary. They compete against other associates for a very few partnership spots and work under the supervision of partners who survived in that system and relish the chance to dish it out the way they had it dished out to them. When they are not working they are expected to be out hob-nobbing with politicians and businessmen so they can keep the firm in the public eye and bring in more big-firm business. Big firm lawyers are under extra pressure to win if they are going against a small firm lawyer or sole practitioner because they are, after all, expensive big-firm lawyers. What is the client paying all the money for if their big-firm lawyer can’t demolish some lawyer practicing out of his van? The problem is that judges don’t care about any of that, and although you will always get consistent quality out of your big firm lawyer, good lawyering does not always translate into winning cases.
Your big-firm lawyer is likely to have good social skills, but be as unhappy and terrified beneath the veneer as any lawyer you are likely to encounter. If you manage to get a partner for your lawyer, he or she may be more at ease or may have permanently adapted to the frenetic fear-based culture of the big firm. Chances are, if you are a big firm type of client, you already know it. Go with a lawyer from a big firm and be happy.
Small and Medium Firms
Most lawyers practice in small and medium firms. Some of these are collections of like-minded lawyers who pool their skills for the betterment of all and create a supportive and kindly atmosphere for everyone who works there. Others are collections of mean desperate people who hate their co-workers as much as they hate their jobs and their clients. These firms resemble a madhouse more than a business. Most small firms fall somewhere in the middle.
Small firms differ in the way they attract business. Some have one or two rainmakers — lawyers who, through reputation or contacts, bring in the clients. The remainder of the lawyers do the work. Sometimes the rainmaker is a skilled lawyer. More often the rainmaker doesn’t practice much law at all. He spends his time attending events and kissing up to rich people so that they will think of him when they need legal services. If you go to one of these firms and find yourself talking to someone whose name is not on the letterhead, don’t let it concern you. The people with their names on the letterhead may not actually practice law anymore if they ever did. Remember that actually practicing law sucks. You want an in-the-trenches lawyer working for you, not someone who is good at Rotary Club speeches.
Watch out for a firm that only has one name on the letterhead but has a lot of lawyers. Steer clear of “Joe Schmoe and Associates,” or “Joe Schmoe Law.” These firms tend to be owned by an egocentric psychopath who runs the office as a business by hiring out-of-work desperate lawyers to work for slave wages until they have enough experience to jump ship to a better place. The rank and file at these law shops are the unhappiest of unhappy lawyers and their misery may well leak into the work they do for you.
Some firms are not really firms at all. They may have names on the letterhead but if you peek under the hood, it is several lawyers sharing offices and overhead under the same name. In these firms, each lawyer markets himself and collects fees from the clients he brings in and serves. The lawyers may refer clients back and forth to each other, but if Betty does your legal work, when you pay the bill, Betty will get the money. She won’t be sharing it other than through her contribution to the shared costs of office space, phones and reception. The lawyers in these firms are really sole practitioners who share overhead. For sole practitioners, see below.
Sole practitioners run the gamut from lawyers practicing with a team of assistants in downtown skyscrapers to lawyers practicing alone out of their vans in the parking lot behind a convenience store. Some of them are great lawyers who don’t want their practices limited by bosses or partners. Others are sole practitioners because nobody in their right mind wants to be associated with them. A lot of them practice sharing offices with other sole practitioners and these folks can look like a firm. If you can’t tell, look the lawyer up on the web with the State Bar Association. The listing will tell you if that lawyer is part of a firm or a partnership.
The worry with sole practitioners is that the lawyer won’t have the office infrastructure to handle your case. The guy practicing out of his garage may give you a great hourly rate compared to the guy in the corner office of a firm, but if the guy in the garage is charging you that hourly rate while he walks your demand letter down to the post office, you are not saving any money. Those assistants and paralegals do a lot of work for a lower rate than your lawyer. I once got hired by an out-of-state lawyer who told me straight up, “This is the last time I want to talk to you. Your assistant can do everything I need and do it at a much lower rate than you can.” He turned out to be right and when I saw his final bill it pissed me off.
The upside of sole practitioners is that on the average, they charge less. Be careful though. Some of the most ridiculous legal bills I have ever seen have come from sole practitioners who didn’t have enough work and spent all their time working on and billing the one case they had.
Make a Friend
If you follow my directions for hiring a lawyer, you not only increase the chances of getting a good solution to your legal problem, you will have a friend who is a lawyer. The lawyer may not be the kind of friend who takes you camping or out for a drink, but friend enough that the next time you have a legal problem you can give that person a call, and the call goes right through. You can refer in general conversations with your other friends to “my lawyer” and actually have one.
I am about to turn sixty-nine years old. I started playing video games with coin-op Pong in the early seventies. Since then I have owned every major home video game system, played all of the big-studio games, and completed hundreds of smaller games. Last night while I slept, my PS4 downloaded my pre-order of The Last of Us II. This morning, a few hours after it became available, I turned on my PS4 and started the story.
The Last of Us II is a sequel to The Last of Us, a zombie shooter with a heavy emphasis on stealth. That is my cup of tea. I am not overly concerned with zombies, but I like shooters. I like it when my shooters are peppered with environmental puzzles and have a heavy stealth element. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy others. Last year’s Control, was magnificent. Since finishing it, my video game itch has remained unscratched and I rest high hopes on The Last of Us II, largely because I enjoyed The Last of Us a lot.
I feel a little guilty about playing, writing about, and thinking about video games. Two tabs over on Google docs, where I am writing this review, I have a partially completed review of Lawrence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet. Reading the minor works of Durrell is hoity-toity intellectual — shooting zombies, not so much. I don’t read the lesser-known works of Durrell because I want to be better educated or more well-rounded. I am too old for that sort of thing. I do it because I love to sit in a chair and experience his prose.
The novels I write are detective novels. The investigator is a lawyer, not a detective, but the novels use the detective novel formula. A couple of my fans — and a couple is really all there are — have opined that my books are genre-busting, but that is not because I object to the formula, but rather because I am incapable of applying it correctly. My novels are not designed to teach, or address social issues, or make the reader a better person for having read them. They are written to entertain.
I play video games, and listen to music, and read books, and even cook because that is how I entertain myself. Each art form has its own charms, but beginning a new big-studio video game is a pleasure different from anything else. There is the question: Will I be drawn in? If so, I will have from twelve to forty hours of delight or even obsession while I drive toward is completion. Unlike music or movies, a major video game is a long-form sort of artistic endeavor. The anticipation combined with dread I feel at the start of one is similar to how I feel in the first chapter of a long novel — or set of novels, such as the Avignon Quintet. I don’t know yet whether The Last of Us II will suck me in, but it is a possibility.
Maybe my detective novels and the video games I play are not meant to lead us to a better society, but they do take place in society — or in video games, some sort of society — and thus they raise and reflect social issues. In The Last of Us II, I am currently killing zombies — or “infected” as they are called — in the character of a young gay woman traveling with her female partner. This differs significantly from the muscle-bound zombie killers I have played many times in the past. Women in video games are no longer scantily clad buxom fodder for adolescent wet dreams. I like the change, but don’t give it a lot of thought. I am there to kill zombies and solve puzzles. I don’t much care who carries the digital shotgun.
Being in the middle of both of them, I don’t know whether I will end up liking either of them. Both have garnered a fair number of bad reviews, as well as good ones. If I finish either, I will let you know what I think.
This morning the latest Leopold Larson book became available on Amazon. It has taken an awfully long time, but it is finally done. At the moment, the Kindle version and the print version are not linked at Amazon, but that will remedy itself in a few days if I am patient.
I have a new article about community college yoga here.
I like to eat hamburgers. I am not alone. Google tells me that Americans eat fifty billion — yes billion with a “b” — hamburgers a year.
Not only do I like hamburgers, but I also think more about the minutiae of food, cooking, and flavor than should any person who doesn’t have to make a living in restaurants. In my house I don’t do all of the cooking, but if the dish involves beef, I get the job. I grill beef, barbecue it, sous vide it, saute it, braise it, pressure cook it, reverse sear it and stew it. I buy prime beef from Costco and beef marrow bones from a giant Asian grocery store. Preparing beef is one of my favorite pastimes and my beef dishes bring relatives — even the ones who don’t particularly like me — salivating to my house.
Beef has a rich but subtle taste. Although people don’t tend to think so, chicken is a stronger flavor. If you don’t believe me, make broth. The taste of chicken leaches easily from bones and meat into water where it becomes a satisfying winter cure for all cold-weather illnesses. Flavorful beef broth takes a lot of beef and costs a lot to make. Commercial chicken broths can be passable. Commercial beef broths are worthless. The flavor of beef may be subtle, but it is rich, satisfying, and addictive. Thus, all those hamburgers.
Almost all beef dishes require that the beef at some point be browned. Browning of food is caused by the Maillard reaction — that process in which at certain temperatures amino acids interact with sugars. The Maillard reaction creates flavors that humans love. Take a salty strip of greasy pork, give it a heavy dose of the Maillard reaction and you have bacon. Subject a couple of slices of bread to the reaction and you have toast. The famously delicious BLT is little more than a Maillard explosion in your mouth.
The flavors produced when dry beef browns on hot metal are particularly tasty. When faced with tough beef intended for braising or stewing, cooks brown the meat and deglaze the pan before sending it into the liquid. The brown stuff, whether on the surface of the meat or stuck to the pan, infuses the cooking liquid with Maillard deliciousness. With a tender cut — like a ribeye steak — a cook can use several ways to bring the internal temperature of the meat up to the 130 degree eating temperature. What makes or breaks the steak is not how the cook gets it to the correct internal temperature but how well the cook develops a salty crust, a crust obtained by carefully managing the Maillard reaction.
The challenge in cooking beef arises out of the disconnect between good flavor and good texture. The flavorful cuts are tough, and the tender cuts are flavorless. Shank meat has a rich beef flavor. So does ox-tail, chuck, and brisket, but these flavorful cuts have to be smoked, sous vide’d, or braised for hours before they become tender enough to eat. A tenderloin is as tender as butter right off the grill or out of the oven, but I serve tenderloin with horseradish or a flavorful pan sauce because the meat itself doesn’t taste very beefy. As the beef guy in my house, I am always working with the trade-off between chewability and flavor.
So how does one get both great beef flavor and chewability from a hunk of meat — preferably a cheap hunk of meat — when you want to quickly grill it? The answer is simple. We pre-chew it, and call this mechanically pre-chewed meat “hamburger.” By machine-chewing the beef before we cook it, the full flavor of those tough cuts emerges in a chewable form without the time involved in smoking, stewing and braising. If you then form the ground meat into reasonably thin patties, you have two convenient surfaces to give the Maillard treatment. Flavor plus tenderness plus browning equal deliciousness. And that is why Americans eat fifty billion hamburgers every year.
I think that about ten minutes after mankind discovered the tastiness of the hamburger, somebody suggested it would taste better if we added cheese and lettuce and tomato and ketchup and mustard and bacon and a fried egg and mushrooms and jalapeno peppers and a lot of other things. The people who came up with these additions were all correct. Almost anything tastes good on a hamburger.
The bad news is that as the hamburger became covered in condiments, vegetables, cheeses and everything else in the pantry, cooks lost sight of the beef. Hamburger was not being made from the most flavorful cuts but rather from whatever part of the cow that was left over. Another bad thing happened. In order to reduce the burden of storing hamburger, commercial butchers compressed the pre-chewed meat into molds. Then home cooks and burger joints squeezed the meat again into hard round disks that would not fall apart on the griddle. The result of all this squeezing and compressing was pre-chewed meat nearly as unyielding to teeth as the beef had been prior to being ground. Instead of a tender patty of flavorful beef that fell apart in your mouth, we had a tough flavorless disk which was only good as a browned protein foundation for creative add-ons.
Here there was a hamburger fork in the road. The Maillard reaction produces so much flavor that any sort of browned protein is going to make a passable foundation for a sandwich. Burger makers had no need to squeeze out real beef flavor when they had bacon and mushrooms and blue cheese to carry the dish. Most burger joints and most home cooks took this fork.
I did not.
I like burgers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Red Robin, Five Guys, In and Out Burger and the grill at my church picnic. I eat and enjoy burgers at all these places. However, in my home, I go back to what made hamburgers so enticing in the first place — great beef flavor, perfect browning, and fall-apart tenderness.
I grind my own hamburger. I do it using the meat grinder accessory on my Kitchenaid mixer. It works fine for me. I produce my best burgers when I throw them on a griddle within a few hours of grinding the meat. My hamburger is made primarily from chuck, but I kick up the beef flavor with the addition of shank, rib or brisket. I even like a little sirloin in the mix. I shoot for at least a twenty-percent fat content and add beef fat to the grinding mix to get there. When shopping for ribeye’s I am alert for the marbling — that lattice of fat that runs through the body of the meat. When making hamburger I can control the marbling. Beef fat is delicious and I like a lot of it in my burger.
When I make burgers I form the patties gently. I need them firm enough to hold together while cooking, yet loose enough to fall apart in your mouth. This takes a bit of practice and putting the patties in the refrigerator after forming them helps. Sometimes I go small, three-ounce patties on small buns — almost sliders. Sometimes I go as big as six ounces but never bigger. Beyond that, the balance of crust to interior gets out of whack.
I do grilling on my patio. Over the years my patio has seen nearly every conceivable outdoor cooking device. My current darling is the PK360, a monster of two-zone cooking. It can reverse sear a ribeye to Saturday night perfection. However, when I cook hamburgers I pull out the griddle from my old Weber gas grill and lay it over the grates of the PK360. Hamburgers deserve a griddle so that the beef fat, rather than dripping into the coals and starting flare-ups, pools around the meat. The burgers cook in their own sizzling fat.
I season my burgers with salt and pepper just before they go on the griddle and brown them almost to the point of burning. There is no need to leave the inside of the burger medium rare. We do that to steaks to prevent toughness. My burgers are pre-chewed. They will not be tough. Let them sit on the griddle in their own juices until the exterior is a deep brown. Despite what I said earlier about add-ons, I like a slice of Boars Head yellow American cheese on my burger — just one — applied at the end and left on until thoroughly melted.
The burger buns should be soft. The rule of sandwiches is that hard fillings need a hard bun and soft fillings need a soft one. My burgers are tender, and the buns should be as well. If you make your own buns, make potato buns. Potato in the buns keeps them tender. If you buy them, don’t fall for the idea that some high-quality crusty bun will help. The crunchy bread will compete with the beef patty. I brown soft buns lightly on the griddle, give them a swipe of mayonnaise for an oil barrier against the beef juices that will come flowing out of the patty, and serve.
Your guests may clamor for mustard and ketchup and onion, but force them to try what you have made. After the first bite, they will remember how delightful beef can be, and the requests for condiments will end.
I understand that the vast bulk of the fifty billion hamburgers eaten in America are “fast food,” and my hamburgers are the opposite of fast food. They are not, however, as impractical as they might seem at first glance. I usually grind about thirty ounces of hamburger at a time and make five six-ounce patties. My wife and I eat a couple on the day the meat is ground. I freeze the other three, vacuum sealing the patties after they are partially frozen so they hold shape. Thereafter, I can fry one up using the same technique one uses to cook commercially prepared frozen patties. The results are not as good as on the first day, but close, and a world apart from their factory-produced brethren.
Often when I go to a restaurant my friends are loath to order a hamburger, the consensus being that hamburgers are only on the menu for those diners too timid to try something adventurous. To a certain extent, I share that prejudice. However, if you want to test the cook to see if he or she is truly paying attention to the food being served, order that hamburger. You will learn things, both good and bad, about the quality of what is going on in the kitchen.
The point of all this, I guess, is that the hamburger patty is a remarkable invention. It can be the canvas on which to apply a myriad of ingredients and flavors, or it can be a soloist and carry the load alone. We need to respect and appreciate its greatness. If you haven’t let the beef be the soloist in a while, perhaps it is time you remembered how enticing the flavor of browned beef can be. Make yourself a good hamburger.
I have been posting short pieces on Medium, a forum for stuff a little longer than one sees on Facebook. I wrote about my attempts to recreate Nalley’s chili in my kitchen, The article is here.
I did this a while back up in the forest. I find it a bit embarrassing as I look back, but that is the way things work as you get older.
I still have the cabin and the hat. The coat, however, is long gone.
People who enjoyed The Duke of Morrison Street have been harassing me for some time to finish my sequel. I am two thirds through the first draft and my working name for it is The Guardian. I am writing this post as a way of spurring me on to finish it.
I was at a poetry reading and presentation yesterday by David Whyte. I was there because Cheri, my wife, asked me to go. At one point in the presentation Mr. Whyte made us turn to a neighbor in the crowd and discuss why we were there. I ended up talking to a young woman who was working on her first book but was troubled with writers block. I said, as I often have, that what helped me was realizing that writing was done with my fingers, not my mind of my imagination. If my fingers are not on the keyboard, I am not writing.
Now I need to take a little of my own advice and get the fingers on the keyboard for the sequel to the Duke of Morrison Street.