Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
It's a filthy hot Chicago morning, and I'm trying to guess what Ozzy Osbourne tastes like.
There are three hamburgers in front of me, all named after heavy metal bands. There's a Black Sabbath burger, a Led Zeppelin burger, and a Pantera burger. My task is to identify which burger represents which classic metal band. It's a daunting challenge. Because you're not just asking, what does heavy metal taste like? The bigger philosophical question is, can heavy metal have a gustatory perception? Can something that usually goes in our ears also go in our mouths, with similar aesthetic results?
First, some backstory. These burgers were created at a Chicago restaurant called Kuma's Corner. They've been making metal-themed burgers since 2005, named after bands you're probably familiar with (Iron Maiden, Slayer, Metallica) and a few you probably aren't (Goatsnake, High on Fire, Lair of The Minotaur). Kuma's is extremely popular; the wait time to get in is two hours on a good day, and more than a few devoted customers (according to rumors I've heard from reliable sources) have gotten tattoos of the burgers. Which is mind-blowing, if you really think about it. It's one thing to have a Mastodon tattoo, but quite another to have a Mastodon burger tattoo. Are they saying they love "Blood and Thunder," or frizzled onions and sharp cheddar? Or both?
I was invited to a late morning burger tasting at Kuma's with Luke Tobias, the restaurant's Director of Operations, and Michael Jarvis, their Executive Chef. They're both heavily tattooed, pierced, and kinda badass. But they're not entirely sure how to answer my "what does heavy metal taste like" riddle. Which is probably my fault. It's an admittedly stupid and confusing question, like asking what colors smell like, or whether animals go to heaven.
"I don't know if the music and the burgers are necessarily related," Tobias says. "I eat our Hatebeak sandwich every day. But I hate the fucking band. Hatebeak is fucking horrible. That shit is worthless."
I try for a different approach; the classic chicken-or-the-egg quandary. "Do you make a burger and randomly give it a metal band name, or find a metal band that speaks to you on a culinary level and then put together the perfect ingredients to represent it as a meat sandwich?"
"I've done it both ways," Jarvis says. "We did a Weedeater burger, and I put a red cabbage slaw on top that almost looked like a piece of weed. That was something I made specifically for the band. But then there's the King Bong, which was a burger I just kind of put together and then we ended up giving it that name."
When you're dealing with heavy metal names, it's hard not to run into the occasional sexual pun. Like Goblin Cock. Until seeing the name on Kuma's menu, I had no idea the band existed. But apparently it's real. Goblin Cock is a doom metal band from San Diego. It's also something you can eat at Kuma's.
I can't help myself. It needs to be asked. "How did you decide what Goblin Cock tastes like?"
"The only way to find out is to suck a lot of goblin dicks," Tobias says, smirking. "We're in Chicago, so it works out. They're right around the corner, under the bridge."
"No," I say, "I'm being serious."
"It's not that complicated," he says. "It's got a fucking hot dog on it. And there's neon green relish. We didn't have to put a lot of thought into it, honestly."
"So it doesn't have anything to do with the music? It's just ..."
"A Goblin Cock," Tobias says, answering for me. "Yep."
It was my idea to do a blind taste test, to see if I could identify bands solely by their burger ingredients. If I can't get answers from Kuma's creative team, maybe I can find them in my stumbling attempts to pretend I'm some kind of heavy metal expert. We're sitting in the restaurant's back patio, because inside there's heavy metal being blasted at angry-teenager-in-his-bedroom decibals (a constant soundtrack at Kuma's), which makes non-shouting conversation impossible. It's hot outside -- 97 degrees before the humidity takes hold -- and within minutes I'm sweating like an overweight roadie.
Then the burgers come out. All three of them are the size of Pugs. I take a bite of one at random. It's filled with pulled pork and bacon and ground beef. I make a lucky guess.
"What made you say Led Zeppelin?" Tobias asks, seeming genuinely interested.
"There's too much meat," I say.
"Too much?" Jarvis asks, raising an eyebrow.
"There are two, maybe three animals represented here. That's a lot of meat for one sandwich. It makes me think of ... skinny jeans and rock bulges."
Jarvis and Tobias look at me, expressionless.
"It also tastes a little Satanic," I blurt out.
"It's definitely evil," Tobias agrees.
I move on to the other burgers. The second one stumps me. There's a definite Southern theme going on, with the salsa and chili pepper and tortilla strips. But somehow I never think of Pantera, even though they're from Texas. Tobias suggests that my problem may be my "girly small bites." He's right, of course. I'm eating these burgers like a British nobleman eats cucumber finger sandwiches. But it's uncomfortable to consume three burgers by myself while guys in black who would've beaten me up in high school are watching. I feel like I'm on deck for a wedgie and a new nickname like "Spitzy McLardbutt."
I bite down on the final burger like a Hungry Hippo. Almost immediately I regret this decision. It's delicious -- a complex array of flavors that comes after my tastebuds like a thousand devil pitchforks. I'm pretty sure my mouth is on fire. If I looked in the mirror at this exact moment, I'm positive I'd resemble one of the melting Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But with less screaming and more satisfied burping.
"Black Sabbath," I mumble, my mouth obnoxiously full. Jarvis and Tobia nod.
I don't know how I knew. It just seemed obvious. Jarvis tells me the ingredients -- pepperjack, blackening spice, a house-made chili made with fire and virgin tears -- and it all makes sense. But why do those ingredients make more sense for Black Sabbath than, say, KISS? My mouth feels like Satan just squirted lighter fluid into it, which at least has shades of Gene Simmons. And aren't there dozens, maybe hundreds of Norwegian black metal bands just as deserving? What about the Black Sabbath burger makes it uniquely, inarguably a Black Sabbath burger?
Before I can swallow and ask any of those questions, a homeless man lumbers past the patio, his pants pulled down so low that his entire ass is exposed. This is apparently a common occurrence. "He's the new neighborhood resident," Jarvis admits. "He's out there every single day and night." Tobias groans. "That shit bums me the fuck out," he says, then runs over to take a photo of the homeless guy's butt on his cellphone. I'm still chewing heavily-seasoned meat as I'm looking at the sweaty, pimply, undulating ass, which remains in my sightline for almost an entire minute. Even with this new sensory input, which should alter my brain chemistry in some way, I'm still thinking, 'This tastes just like Black Sabbath.'
I ask if any of the bands on Kuma's menu are aware of their burger homage, and if so, do they have opinions? Most of the feedback has been positive, they tell me. Only occasionally have bands protested. "We had a Clutch burger on the menu," Tobias says. "It was a cheeseburger with all these different kinds of cheese on it, like cheddar, jack, Swiss, Gouda. When they finally tried it, they were pretty upset. They were like, 'it needs jalapenos,' all this shit."
"You don't think an artist should have input on what they taste like?" I ask.
"In general it doesn't work out very well. We also made a burger for Anthrax, and they kept insisting it should have HP Sauce. Our thing with bands is, you are really good at writing riffs and playing shows, that's what you do. We make fucking hamburgers for a living. Leave us alone and let us do what we do."
This may not be the best time to mention that I have a hamburger idea from Queensrÿche's Geoff Tate.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. A few hours before my visit to Kuma's, I called Tate and made a proposal. Create a recipe that tastes like what you think Queensrÿche sounds like. Then I'll take it to Kuma's and ask them to do the same. If both recipes have anything in common, then maybe there is something to this. Maybe music can be reproduced in edible form.
Tate couldn't have been more enthusiastic. "Queensrÿche's albums are fairly eclectic in how they're made and designed," he told me. "It's a blend of a lot of different styles and sounds. And I think a Queensrÿche burger should reflect that." The main components of his burger recipe: Onion, lite blue cheese, bacon, sliced apple, and jalapeno pepper
"I wasn't expecting the apples," I admitted. "It seems kinda ... fruity."
"Oh, I'm all about fruity," he said. "I love mixing fruits like apples and cherries with meat. I'm also in the wine business, so I'm always looking for ways to match food with wine. I make a French bordeaux style that would go very well with this burger."
I'm not sure what to do with this information. I wasn't expecting a guy who once famously sang "Your soul slipped away/ It belongs to the Queen of the Reich/ Yeah she's coming for you" to suggest a French bordeaux pairing for his calorie-conscious hamburger.
Later that day, I ask Jarvis and Tobias to concoct a Queensrÿche burger that's equally or more representational of Queensrÿche than the recipe created by Queensrÿche's lead singer. I even play them a few tracks from Queensrÿche's latest, Frequency Unknown, as well as the other just-released self-titled album by the other band calling themselves Queensrÿche but without Tate on lead vocals. Jarvis and Tobias lean in and listen intently, like they're actually looking for clues in the music. I'm probably reading too much into their expressions, but I imagine an internal monologue that takes everything into account. "Hmm, too many minor chords," I assume they're thinking. "Not really getting a bacon vibe anymore. The tonality of that last squeal totally said 'guacamole' to me."
Jarvis doesn't take long to come up with a list of ingredients. "On the bottom bun there'll be a mint black garlic chimichurri," he says. "Then we've got bacon, pork with a tart cherry glaze, and white cheddar."
I share Tate's recipe with them, and they seem pleased with the similarities. "I've got fruit in mine too," Jarvis says.
"Tate's burger seems like a combination of a few different things we've done," Tobias says. "Like the Kaijo, or the Bongzilla with the jalapeño apple chutney."
"It reminds me of a Judas Priest," Jarvis says. "It had apples and dried cranberries on it."
"What do apples have to do with Judas Priest?" I ask.
"It's fruity," Tobias says matter-of-factly.
Maybe there is something to all this. Prior to my morning of burger excess, I never would've used the words "fruity" to describe Queensrÿche. But now I feel like I'm getting insights into their creative world view that just listening to their music never would have provided.
As I walk home through the blistering heat, the Black Sabbath burger doing things to my internal organs that "Iron Man" once did to my ears, I decide that I'm going to buy their new album, 13, as soon as humanly possible. At least before I sweat or excrete this burger out of my system. It's been years since I cared about the band this much. I wasn't all that interested in stealing their new stuff, much less buying it. But now, the way my body is vibrating, like I've been standing too close to one of Tony Iommi's speakers, I feel an insatiable need to have their music inside me again.