July 19, 2010

An Honest Burger

The cook is Joe or Carl or Al, hot in a white coat and apron, beady sweat on white forehead, below the white cook’s cap; moody, rarely speaking, looking up for a moment at each new entry. Wiping the griddle, slapping down the hamburger. He repeats Mae’s orders gently, scrapes the griddle, wipes it down with burlap. Moody and silent… Al never speaks. He is no contact. Sometimes he smiles a little at a joke, but he never laughs. Sometimes he looks up at the vivaciousness in Mae’s voice, and then he scrapes the griddle with a spatula, scrapes the grease into an iron trough around the plate. He presses down a hissing hamburger with his spatula. He lays the split buns on the plate to toast and heat. He gathers up stray onions from the plate and heaps them on the meat and presses them in with the spatula. He puts half the bun on top of the meat, paints the other half with melted butter, with thin pickle relish. Holding the bun on the meat, he slips the spatula under the thin pad of meat, flips it over, lays the buttered half on top, and drops the hamburger on a small plate. Quarter of a dill pickle, two black olives between the sandwich. Al skims the plate down the counter like a quoit. And he scrapes his griddle with the spatula and looks moodily at the stew kettle (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939).
I’m quietly celebrating my return to a thirty-inch waist, and that hardly seems like the time to offer a panegyric on junk food, especially having just re-entered the United States. I’ve said before that ‘man food’ is not all fire and grunting, and have waxed opinionated about the value of an educated palate. So, what am I up to?

Well, the thing about junk food is that it is not all junk. Some of it carries a great weight of meaning, as well as of fat. Forget your big chains and your TV-advertised hunger busters: proper American junk food is as honest as the day is long. Authentic hamburgers are made fresh, on site. Nothing about any of the ingredients is remotely processed or mass produced. It is all free from the artificial contaminants that blight so much American food, and that weigh heavily on the American gut.


Best of all, honest American junk food is still served in old-fashioned diners, where nothing much has changed since Steinbeck immortalised the hamburger joints of Route 66. Last night I ate at the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, Mass., which serves by its own testimony ‘Industrial Strength Food’. It was all just so. There’s something about a good old-fashioned honest burger in America: in a strange way, it has long reassured a nation that everything will be okay. As long as there is food for workers, then there is work to be done.

15 comments:

  1. Only thing wrong with the process Steinbeck describes is too much pressing down w/ Spatula. Once a burger is on the grill it should only be touched once...that is when it is flipped. If you press down during cooking it makes the meat dry out....

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  2. I had had that thought too. Something to do with a fear of idle hands, no doubt.

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  3. I follow http://hamburgeramerica.blogspot.com/. I feel dopey sharing this link, but if you haven't already seen his page it's a treasure trove of info about 'real' burgers.

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  4. Well writen post. If I had to pick a last meal a burger would be it.

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  5. Ah, thanks Mr. Enthusiast. I shouldn't feel too bad about sharing such a link. A useful resource so far as I can tell. It's a pity that one doesn't seem to be able to comment on the burger posts. I should have liked to have shared some further tips about decent burgers in London.

    My dear James, I do hope that you won't have to make such a choice for many a ripe year!

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  6. Congratulations on your 30. Timely, as I just had to buy myself some 30 sized trousers this past weekend. True about the burgers. Unfortunately, we seem to be so enamored with the golden arches, we have forgotten what a real burger tastes like. Here are there are a number of burger shop's, normally named Tom's or Norm's or Steve's or some other all american name. Beats the arches anyday of the week.

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  7. Thanks Turling. One of the qualifications for being a dandy, apparently, is that one's waist is smaller than one's inseem. I'm beating it by 2 inches right now (but I fail in many other of the dandy categories).

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  8. Great post! No matter how evolved our palates get, nothing can beat a good old burger! Unfortunate though, the diners we are both fond of seem to be a dying breed!

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  9. Indeed Lily, and thanks. There must be a diner heritage society out there somewhere. I'd be happy to give such a thing my support.

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  10. Ive always thought that even thought Burgers have come off as bad for us, they still are quite nutritious. I live in Australia, and we have no where near as many burger outlets, so I am looking forward to my trip to the USA in October to experience this. good stuff.

    Cheers,

    Schmidty
    www.ManVsStyle.com

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  11. Those American burgers really do sound very nice. That's actually why I dislike McDonalds here - because most of it is so obviously not good; I think this side of the pond your best bet for a good burger is in a American hotel chain like Mariott - they usually do good and fresh cooked.

    You're the first person I've spoken too who can make me feel fat though.

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  12. There are one or two places in London - one in Islington in particular - that make a fine burger. If my waist size is taunting you, just hop over here for a day or two. You'll soon feel skinny as a rake!

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  13. Back in the "good ole days" I had my first non-ranching job as a car hop for Sonic Drive In. I was only 12 but this was "back in the day" when age didn't really matter. I worked my way up to being a "weanie-ass" aka onion chopper, onion ring maker, condiment filler etc... Eventually I hit the big time working my way up to a burger flipper. Over and over again thousands of burgers, I didn't think it would ever end. But, eventually, it did, I moved away to college to the northern Rocky Mountains where Sonics were few and far in between. To this day, I can't drive by a Sonic without stopping and taking a trip down memory lane!

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  14. I spent the summer of 1974 in London going to school. I was this rather unworldly ranch raised kid and trust me i got an eye full for sure, especially Piccadilly Circus lol! The biggest thing i missed was a good old fissioned hamburger. OMG thought I was going to starve to death! They did have at the time a chain called Wimpy s. They would serve you a single patty of (mystery meat) on a plate that you ate with a knife and fork lol. I loved England I loved the people but could NOT WAIT to fly into New York City in September to sink my chops into a big juicy American hamburger!

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  15. Thank you for these insights CJ. One thing I can guarantee is that you'll find a decent burger in London these days (well, you'll still have to search, but they are there). I think Wimpy went the way of it own meat.
    VB

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