Monday, January 20, 2014

Under the influence of burgers

People seem to get nostalgic about a lot of things they weren't so crazy about the first time around. ~Author Unknown

Someone over at Time Magazine, having nothing better to do, has compiled a list of the 17 most influential burgers of all time. Most have been a terribly slow week for news. At any rate, I bit on it and clicked the link to see a list consisting mostly of burgers I had never heard of. Of the ones I knew, I had a tough time deciding what made most of them “influential.”

Now, I don't pretend to be a hamburger gourmet, nor am I an expert on the gastronomic history of ground beef (or whatever) on a bun. But I have eaten a lot of hamburgers over the last 60 years or so, so I think I have the right to flip a comment out there. And, even if I don't, it's my blog and I can do what I want within the bounds of not screaming “FIRE!” in a crowded theater.

The first one I recognized was the Varsity Burger. The Varsity is what was once an old-style drive-in in Atlanta, complete with girls on roller skates delivering your order. People rave about this place, especially those who haven't been there or haven't been there for a long time. Some years ago, I was in Atlanta with a three other guys attending one of the technology shows they used to have before everything moved to Vegas and New York City. As we were getting ready to head out, one guy insisted that we stop at the Varsity. Since he was our boss, we decided it was a wonderful idea.

What I got from this wonderful place was a cold burger served up by people so surly they made your average McDonald's worker seem like a solicitous concierge by comparison. Even the guy who insisted we go there had to admit it wasn't like the olden days. Maybe that's when they were “influential” because they sure aren't now.

The Quadruple Bypass Burger is a nightmare. To make your own, take about seven thick burgers, cover each with cheese and bacon, and slather on every unhealthy condiment you can think of. It's ridiculous and hardly can be considered to have influenced anyone in the burger biz. Oh, I'm sure that some of the other outlandish murderous burgers that have come along since were inspired by this mess, but really now, can anyone consider this a “hamburger.”

Finally, we get to one that actually has some chops: The Burger King Whopper. While it's not what it once was, it definitely got a lot of burger places to realize that a “cheese burger all the way” was a pale shadow compared to a Whopper with cheese. I could be wrong, but I thing Hardee's and McDonald's had to come up with offerings to match these guys. But, they couldn't match the “make it my way” approach Burger King had.

Number 2 on the list was the McDonald's burger. We're not talking about the Big Mac here. We're talking about that mass-produced soggy little pathetic burger, whose greatest claim to fame was to cost 15 cents for a long time. This was at a time when a decent burger could be had at a drug store counter (yes, drug stores used to have soda fountains and grills) for 25 cents. But McDonald's also served up cheap shakes and drinks and pretty decent fries. Most of those drug stores had mediocre fries if they had any at all.

McDonald's really kickstarted the whole fast food thing because another problem with the drug store is they made the stuff to order, so you had to wait a few minutes. The reward was that you got a nice hot-off-the-grill burger. At McDonald's, you got (and still get, I imagine) a recently-removed-from-the-heat-lamp burger that is cooling rapidly. But, you got it quick. Also, McDonald's was a hang-out. Drug stores didn't like people loitering around. At McDonald's, you could get a bag of food and sit out in the car and eat. This was particularly nice for families with small kids (although not so nice for the upholstery).

Number 1 is the White Castle Slider, or as we called it, the bun-burger. For those of you who may not know, the slider is a teeny burger on a glorified brown-and-serve roll. Generally, you bought them by the dozen. It took at least three just to begin to fill you up. Down here, the slider lives on at Krystal's and it's just as miserable as the White Castle variety. I think what the slider influenced most was to get people to go to McDonald's to get something that at least looked like a real burger.

What I find amazing is that they don't have what I think is the most influential burger of all time: The Big Boy. Long before McDonald's and Burger King, Big Boy brought the original two all-beef patties, cheese, condiments, and an extra slice of bun. But it was great. In our neck of the woods back when in Ohio, the chain was Manners Big Boy and they were always packed with customers. Big Mac was basically a rip-off of the Big Boy (and was really what got McDonald's on the burger map).

Ironically, it was the Big Boy that convinced me as a kid that cheese was pretty good. When I was around five or so, I had no use for cheese. I thought it smelled bad and tasted worse. My folks ran a tavern, which in that bygone era was the sort of place where you could sit a bar and get sloshed or sit at a table and have dinner with the wife and kiddies (and then get sloshed at the bar). At any rate, we went out one night and stopped at a Big Boy and I had one, not knowing what was on it. I thought it was the best thing I had ever eaten on a bun.

A week or so later, I'm sitting in the kitchen where my mother was cooking up orders when she asked me if I wanted a cheeseburger. I immediately turned up my nose and reminded her that I hated cheese. She pulled out the trump card. She said, “You know, there was cheese on that Big Boy you had.” I couldn't believe it! Cheese on something that good? Well, fry me up one of those cheeseburgers already! I was thoroughly hooked and have remained a cheeseburger fanatic ever since.

By the way, if you're ever in the Southeast and want a good burger, there's a secret place to get a great one: Sneaky Pete's. Oh, sure, they're best known for hot dogs, and, according to my wife, they're pretty good. But, a Sneaky Pete burger with cheese all the way is a bun-covered bit of heaven. And if you ever stop in at the one in Birmingham across the street from City Hall's parking garage, tell Verlonda and Cindy that John says, “Hi!”

They'll know who you're talking about.

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