he 100-year anniversary of the action in James Joyce's
Ulysses has been much celebrated in print lately, and
justly so. But we're also at the anniversary of another
epic journey that's worthy of note. Forty years ago,
Ken Kesey and his tribe of Merry Pranksters were on the
road from San Francisco to New York, surfing the bow
wave of a cultural revolution looming just below the
horizon, in waters that were deceptively placid on the
surface. The Great Depression was long gone, put to rest
by the victory of World War II. Technology and wealth
had made America great, and this was only the beginning.
TV dinners foretold microwaves, while a nation of cars
gathered like cattle at drive-in troughs, filling up
on burgers and milkshakes and blazing a trail for the
fast-food herd to follow. Meanwhile, America's dark underbelly
continued to fester; segregation, DDT, witch hunts, the
taboos of sex. It was an uptight time, with plenty of
uptight people determined to keep it that way.
The Merry Pranksters, meanwhile, were overflowing with
spontaneous, absurd energy. Kesey had just published
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest , which used insane asylum
interiors as allegory for the cult of control suffocating
America. Cuckoo's Nest seemed to promise that such oppressive
squareness would not-could not-contain humanity's essential
chaos in a world that is, after all, round.
At the tail end of his Divine Comedy , Dante alludes
to this same struggle to reconcile the circle with the
square. After experiencing hell, purgatory and a climb
to the center of heaven, Dante delivers one of literature's
great anticlimaxes, lamenting, "As the geometer intently
seeks to square the circle, but he cannot reach, through
thought on thought, the principle he needs, so I searched
that strange sight: I wished to see the way in which
our human effigy suited the circle and found a place
in it-and my own wings were far too weak for that."
The struggle between the square and the circle is about
more than shape. It's about humanity's never ending quest
to gain a reliable foothold in an environment that is
in constant flux. Think of the circle, with its forgiving,
flowing curve, as a river. Think of the square as the
cup we dip into the river to get a drink. We need them
both, the flow and control. To truly embrace the flow
would mean being perfectly OK with flowing over a waterfall.
On the other hand, to give yourself completely to the
square would mean becoming a total nerd, or an uptight
nurse like in Cuckoo's Nest .
Even Pranksters, it turns out, can be square. As Tom
Wolfe reports in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , there
were two Pranksters on the bus, Generally Famished and
Dis-mount, who "took to going off whenever they could
for a square meal. Square on every level... in one of
those square American Steak houses 85 square steak, square
French fries, boiled bland peas and carrots and A-1 steak
The other Pranksters scoffed at this, maintaining their
diet of hamburgers from roadside joints along the highways
that Eisenhower built. In hindsight, hamburgers seem
pretty square, too. Should we be disappointed? If there
were an organic hippy-food option at every stop, would
the Pranksters have gone there instead?
Probably not, my gut tells me. "Never trust a Prankster," went
the mantra. And while the Pranksters were full of surprises,
one thing that never wavered was their love for America,
despite so much about it that was ungroovy. In many ways,
the open road and the hamburger epitomized American freedom,
and in their loyalty to the road burger, the Pranksters
confirmed their deep patriotism.
Hoping to confirm my faith in abstract symbolism, I
journeyed to the kitchen to prepare a burger that isn't
square. I minced garlic and parsley and mixed them into
a paste, which I massaged, with breadcrumbs, into ground
meat. I patted the meat into a big flat circle and fried
it in bacon grease. In another pan, I made a sauce of
mushrooms, garlic, sherry, red wine and butter.
As the outside of the burger got crispy, it started
smelling really good. But I realized that the inside
of this round patty would never taste as good as the
surface. The surface, yes! Surface area is the key! More
surface area means more tasty crispiness to soak up the
tangy, earthy, mushroom sauce.
I may be a sucker for symbols, but I couldn't bear the
thought of eating the tepid, soft, parsley-infested interior
of that patty. This is how Dante must have felt in the
center of heaven, how Kesey must have felt when they
reached New York and nobody seemed to care.
Pissed, I dug into the big round patty with the blade
of my spatula, cutting it into small pieces: oblong spheroids,
trapezoids and, yes, squares. When they were crispy all
around, I stirred them into the mushroom sauce and then
served the crispy chunks on French bread slices with
mayo. Was it still a burger? Was it square? I don't know.
And at this point, I don't care.