Wherein The Author Celebrates Hamburgers

I am a simple guy with simple tastes. Yes, a tender, juicy steak is something I appreciate, along with a good quality glass of scotch. However, there is nothing in the world wrong with a good hamburger. Heck, even a mediocre hamburger will usually satisfy my palate.

When you think about it, the humble hamburger is the ultimate in user-friendly food. It has no bones to cut around and leaves no inedible husk or seeds. When you finish, all that is left is a plate or a wrapper. Is there a better mealtime solution?

I am not even going to try to answer the question “where did the hamburger originate” as there are countless claims and very little hard evidence. The consensus is that it happened some time between 1885 and 1904, either in Hamburg, Germany or in the U.S. A version that favors the U.S. story says that something called a Hamburg steak was popular in that time period, and consisted of ground beef mixed with egg and some spices. How hard could it have been to figure out that putting it between two slices of a bun would change the world?

What kind do I prefer? Wow – how many kinds are there? There are the little teeny White Castles with their steamed buns and soft, savory onions. A little dab of mustard added makes them delightful. White Castle, by the way, dates to 1916 and has a pretty good claim on being the first volume purveyor of the things. On the other extreme are the big, thick, juicy “pub burgers” offered in so many restaurants, and toppable with almost anything you can imagine. I am a fan of these too, but I keep to the simpler end of the toppings choices with things like lettuce, tomato and pickle. And, of course, bacon makes everything better.

Those thick pub-style burgers bring up a choice about done-ness. For as long as I can remember, I have had a marked preference for red meat on the less-done end of the scale (as opposed to the gray, dry and crunchy end). It was a bad day when the news got out that undercooked hamburger could make me ill. But whenever a burger comes to me with a minimalistic interpretation of “medium”, I never complain. I just pretend that it’s 1973 and enjoy the juicy tenderness that seems like such a forbidden pleasure as the red juices puddle around the french fries that almost always accompany my sandwich of choice.

All of the fast (or fast-ish) food places have their own interpretation. There is Wendy’s, Culver’s, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr, and a host of others. Each has something to recommend it. Variety is the spice of life, right? And who says you don’t get variety by getting a hamburger multiple times a week so long as you are not stopping at the same drive-through? Even the Golden Arches does a burger in a way that can have its appeal. Have you ever tried one plain – with no cheese and no condiments or toppings? There is actually an appealing flavor to the a McNaked (my term, not theirs), one that is hard to duplicate elsewhere. And the benefit is that you get some of their fries, besides.

Seeing that my first job was in a Burger King, you would think that I would have some sentimental attachment to the Whopper – but this is not true. BK is one of those places I never think about unless I drive past one at the right time. But there is a little hole-in-the-wall called Powers Hamburgers in my home town of Fort Wayne that makes you think it is still 1938 whenever you go inside. It is a better White Castle that begins with a little burger ball that is splatted and smashed on the griddle, then pelted with a handful of stringy onions and covered with both halves of the bun, which steams away until the little thing is ready. And my adopted home city of Indianapolis boasts an ancient inner-city bar that boasts of a mighty good old-school double cheeseburger. Who can’t love a bar called The Working Man’s Friend? Grungy old taverns have served me some really great burgers through the years.

At home I like to follow what some would call Steak n Shake style. Or Smashburger style, if you must. Very thin patties seared in a hot iron skillet, served on a buttered and toasted bun. Mmmmm, I am getting hungry just thinking about one. Burgers out on the charcoal are OK, but those little skillet patties are far better in my view.

About the only kind I cannot abide are those that share a shape, a texture, a level of moisture with a hockey puck. These are the kind that all-too-often get served at someone’s backyard cookout. These are the people who cannot handle undercooked meat, yet insist on putting a patty in the shape of a baseball on the grille surface. By the time the center is done the outside reminds you of the brickquettes some of us still use in our grilles. No amount of ketchup will save such a burger, and not even a burger fan like me will finish it. Fortunately, these are rare. OK, rare in the sense of “I don’t get them very often”. Because if they were rare in the “how do you want it cooked” sense, these would move over into my must-have column.

Toppings/condiments make for more variety, and it is odd how I order different condiments in different places. I am usually a ketchup guy, but not at McDonalds. Did you know that they use a proprietary ketchup recipe that is extra sweet? I am also all-in for pickles. But not at Wendys, which a few years ago jumped on the fad of using sweet-ish bread and butter pickles instead of good, old school dill chips. Neither mustard nor onions is my go-to – unless I am at White Castle (or my old local Powers), in which case they are required.

I’ll go with lettuce and tomato if I feel in need of the cold crunch of fresh vegetables but will almost never do mayo. “Special sauce” can work if I feel in the mood to go with the flow and let the burger place do its thing instead of deciding how I want the burger constructed. Cheese is another of those things that depends on my mood. It is funny how a slice of melted cheese can transform a burger.

The only problem with writing something like this is that there is not a single hamburger within a half mile of my writing location. Which is a terrible thing, because I now have visions of glistening burgers dancing through my brain. The trouble is, I can’t decide what kind would hit the spot right now.

Photo Crediits

Feature photo – Photo of hamburger free stock photo via pexels.com

Photo of White Castle hamburgers from the Flikr page of Gene Hon under CC-BY-NC 2.0 license (photo reduced in size)

Photo of Powers Hamburgers, S. Harrison Street, Fort Wayne, Indiana via Wikimedia Commons

Vintage advertising material from the Miller Brewing Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – a State where beef, cheese and beer all come together.

35 thoughts on “Wherein The Author Celebrates Hamburgers

  1. Ha, this should have been a “spring season” entry! Now I want one. We have an old and well know custard stand called Kopp’s in Milwaukee (three locations, since 1950) that is well known for their burgers. I finally got so tired of not having a “some-one-else” prepared meal during the pandemic, I masked up and went down to Kopp’s and had one of their delicious burgers (socially distanced of course), with a side of “ho-made” fresh onion rings and a chocolate malt (M-A-L-T, not shake). Hit the spot!

    Of course, the “best burger” wars are a staple of every “city” magazine or paper, from time immemorial. We have many great pub-burgers in town, so the competition is fierce. But, J.P., I’m like you, sometimes I want a “plain” burger, to savor the flavor of quality meat, other times I want the “balanced diet” of a burger loaded with lettuce and tomatoes and all the rest. Aficionados would look down their nose at a White Castle, as “not even a burger”, but when you want one you want one, and I am no snob when it comes to this! It is a most “eco” friendly food, as little is left when you are done, nothing much to clean, and just a piece of paper to go in the landfill!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ahhh, you get me! I was late getting home last evening after some errands, and having put this piece to bed had a burger on my mind. There is a Steak n’ Shake near my house and I went for it. That is one of those places that followed an odd path – around since 1934, it is still trying to figure out how its restaurants should work. But last evening I was rewarded with the best double cheeseburger and shoestring fries I could recall from the place.

      Isn’t it interesting that for something as simple as a burger, no two places does one exactly the same way. As you say, White Castles are not objectively great burgers, but they bring a unique flavor and texture package that cannot be matched anywhere else, and when you want one nothing else will do. Steak n’ Shake does a “classic” burger pretty well. The pickles cut lengthways are their little quirk.

      It also just now occurs to me that a burger is one of those few things that goes equally well with a milkshake/malt, a soft drink or a beer.

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  2. Mmm. It’s just past breakfast but now I’m thinking of a burger. I guess I’m a burger snob , I’ve eschewed the mass produced burger in favor of the high quality artisan burgers available in town. Even though I’m not nearly hip enough to appear in such places, but it helps to bring the kids who are 18 and 21 and are a bit hipper than their parents. My only complaint about most artisan burgers is that they’re too big, they look great on the plate but are difficult to fit into the mouth, and are too filling.

    Our local burger success story is Webers in Orillia (check it out on streetview) which is the traditional stopping point for cottaging families heading north from Toronto. Amazingly the streetview does not show this, but there is normally a 200 foot line out the front door. We observed this for many years, thinking “No burger can possibly be that good” but one Tuesday mid-afternoon the line wasn’t too long so we stopped and checked it out. The line moves very quickly, and the burger is quite good. Still, we won’t be going back when the line is long.

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    • Doug, Doug, Doug – I never figured you among the BurgerHipsters. Oh well, I can understand it if the burger is good – and if its not covered in avocado and doesn’t have cheese in the middle of the meat.

      We had a place from the Wahlburgers chain open near us, but the crowds were too big early on for us to make the effort. I am not sure if they are gourmet burgers or if they are just priced like gourmet burgers because of the association with famous people. We will probably give it a try some time reasonably soon.

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    • I could almost be convinced that Burgers need to be divided into classes for a fair competition. There are the modern places that do “artisan” with all kinds of thought that goes into the meat blend, the bun, and the mile-long list of toppings and sauces (and prices as impressive as the sandwiches). Then there are the chains which all have their own thing. And as you note, the mom and pop joints, whether a diner or a tavern that just does the same old-school burger that they did 60 years or more ago. I can see the merit for each class, but I am like you – my heart is with the hole-in-the-wall.

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  3. Well, I’ve got to say, GREAT post, especially since I’ve been longing for a good burger. I don’t eat burgers very much, I when I get in the MOOD for one, it’s ALL I can think of. When I lived in California, I really loved In ‘N Out burgers. They are wonderful and their fries too – great price! They don’t have locations in the Mid-west, which is a shame. So… I guess I’ll be on the hunt for a good burger now. Thanks!

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    • I recall going to In ‘N Out when I had relatives living in California – I wish I could go again because my strongest memory is of the number of choices and trying to decide what to get. It is interesting that they have never expanded out this direction, but perhaps they will one day.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In ‘N Out is Ok but I tend to be a little wary of them since the very first time I had one of their burgers I got stomach sick 3 hours later. Plus I don’t have the patience for their lines that my wife does so I have never physically gone to one on my own. What I really like, above all others, is Habit Burger, which is a small chain out of Santa Barbara. My son and I go to them fairly often and he always likes what he gets from them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Logic says that the odds of you getting sick from another one are quite low, but then we all make certain associations in our minds that can take all of the enjoyment out of something. So your lukewarm reaction to INO is understandable. All the better since you found a great alternative.

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      • Thanks for sharing, I’ve never heard of Habit Burger. Sorry you got sick at In/Out Burger, I’ve gone often, never gotten sick. Just checked, Habit Burger not in the Chicago area. Five Guys can be good. A little more on the greasy side. Always on the hunt for a good, on the healthier side burger. Need to go to Shake Shack again.

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  4. I have the theory that you have to start with the White Castle style burger as a kid to really like them (and I didn’t), but other than that I’m up for pretty much anything.

    Wendy’s is my pick of the fast food options, but I think they changed something with the buns in the last decade and they aren’t quite as good anymore.

    I do remember liking the burgers at Steak & Shake, but I tried the Chili Mac years ago, and haven’t looked back. 3-way with oyster crackers please. 🙂

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    • The other way to like White Castles is to grow up in an area where there is no such thing and listen to people talk fondly about them. When I moved to Indianapolis I felt like I had entered burger heaven, with White Castle on one end and Steak ‘n Shake on the other (which had not existed in my hometown either). I have actually never tried the Chili Mac there, and maybe will have to do so. Chili is another of those things that no two people/places does the same way.

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      • Grew up in Chicago, and then Milwaukee. I was living in Milwaukee when I got “personal burger buying age”, and we had a chain of diners called George Webb. Their burgers were classic sized burgers but tasted a lot like White Castle, so it was easy to fall into the White Castle habit when I lived near one in Indianapolis! George Webb always advertised that they were open 23 hours and 59 minutes, 7 days a week, so it became the go-to place for college kids that had been over-served to get a “bag of burgers” on the way home. They also have the famous burger give away if the Brewers win 12 straight, which they paid off on in 1987 and 2018! If White Castle aficionados make it to Milwaukee, they’ll be happy with George Webb.

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    • I agree with Dan here. It’s hard to beat a Wendy’s single with all the toppings (assuming they’re still made the same way – been too long). None of the other mass-produced options stand out the same way. Burger King’s “flame-broiled” approach never appealed to me. I’m biased towards the McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder since I worked there in high school, but I won’t go out of my way to buy one. And I’ve NEVER understood the appeal of In-‘n’-Out. People are going crazy for it here in Colorado, while we have a dozen better choices (IMHO) within a mile of each store.

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  5. Jim, I’ve had to ponder on this for 24 hours before commenting. My conclusion? Burgers are like a blank canvas, with the possibilities being endless. Not many foods can make such a claim.

    For fast-food burgers, Wendy’s is great although Sonic is a great alternative. For upscale fast-food, Freddy’s is great. Hole in the wall places are simply the best.

    One is a place called Fritz’s in Kansas City. Of their two or three locations in the KC Metro, we have always been to the one in Crown Center, the complex housing Hallmark headquarters. Fritz’s has a burger called the GenDare, which comes with hash browns on the burger. While that seems odd, it is amazingly good together. A GenDare with a side order of fried mushrooms is glorious.

    The experience is also amplified by the food being delivered by an overhead train and the general theme of railroads within the restaurant.

    It is really hard to beat a good burger.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are a couple of Freddies locations in my area and I keep meaning to try one of them. And a burger with hash browns is a combo I have not tried. But it sounds intriguing.

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  6. JP your paragraph on the “doneness” just about did me in. I live in fear of e-coli having seen several patients succumb to it, (albeit all having dined at questionable roadside burger stands, despite the superior health standards enforced by chain restaurants. I prefer my burgers barbecued and blackened to the point of death, and will obsessively check for any morsel of pinkness. The other reason I so seldom order a restaurant hamburger is that I’m inevitably disappointed. My dad raised beef cattle so I grew up eating our own meat, (we had an enormous freezer so deep you would be in danger of falling in trying to retrieve something from the bottom) and no restaurant hamburger, to date, has compared to that. Someone will tell me this place has the best burger ever, and I’ll try it and all I’ll taste is filler. I have had a regular original Macdonald’s hamburger, like a thin patty of sawdust, but never a Big Mac, although I’ve heard the sauce improves it. I go to Macdonalds for the fish fillet sandwich and the fries.

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    • We have a friend who would be good company with Joni. Whenever I barbecued burgers she’d ask for hers to stay on the grill an extra ten or fifteen minutes. Eventually, she went vegan and I’d barbecue portabello mushrooms for her instead. I trust Joni’s comment about e-coli but man, it’s hard to pass up a rare-to-medium-rare burger if you have any faith in the origin of the beef. To Joni’s comments about McDonald’s, the Big Mac never appealed to me (because of the sauce in fact – a Thousandy-Island kind of taste) but the filet-o-fish is darned tasty when you’re in the mood. And please-oh-please McDonald’s, bring back the cherry turnovers!

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      • I loved the cherry turnovers too! I wonder if I should email them or start a petition or something? The thought of a vegan burger is just so unappealing. PS. One of the reasons I’m so paranoid re E-Coli is because of the Walkerton disaster here back in 2000. Walkerton is a small town in Ontario and about 2000 of the townspeople got sick from e-coli because the town’s water supply became contaminated from e-coli from cow’s manure spread on nearby fields, and the water treatment plant was charged with improperly chlorinating and monitoring. Six people died. Most people recover from e-coli borne illness but the odd one gets kidney disease from it. Most restaurants are cautious I would imagine. I’m equally paranoid about chicken!

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      • I recently bought a “black bean and something else patty” at my upscale grocery store, and the box “claimed” I would love it as an alternative to meat. I didn’t love it, it’s didn’t taste anywhere near the burger experience, and I gave the rest away to vegetarians that didn’t like them either!

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    • I suppose that if I had been raised on fresh-from-the-field beef I might be more particular than I am.

      And about the e-coli, you have a point. It is one of those things that the actual chance of it being out there is surely 100%, but that the actual chance of it being in this one particular burger on my plate is quite low. So in that respect, I guess I am like the smoker who knows cigarettes can kill me, but this one particular one will almost surely not. Perhaps I have just been lucky so far. And in my defense, I don’t seek the under-done burgers out – I just enjoy one when I get it. 🙂

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  7. Such a wonderful topic, J P. The comments will be interesting to follow because everyone will (and should) defend their own local and franchise favorites. There is no right answer to “best” here; never will be. All options happily coexist. My wife is from the Midwest and I didn’t try a White Castle slider until I met her. It’s a strange spin on a burger (including the size and shape) and perhaps belongs in a category of its own, but I liked it. I’ve tried everything from Five Guys (too big and messy for my taste but VERY good) to Red Robin (the “Red Robin” with the fried egg – oh my) to Freddy’s (kina like In-N-Out, what’s all the fuss?). Like you, at the end of the day I’ll take the classic American cheeseburger on a toasted bun, medium-rare, ketchup, lettuce, and tomato. Sometimes I’ll throw in sauteed mushrooms if I’m in the mood. Very occasionally pickles or onions.

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    • I tried my first Five Guys when I lived in Washington DC, before they were a national chain and there were only three stores. They were a DC standard, and there was one down the block from where I worked… I haven’t eaten at many of the national chain ones but often wonder if they would match up side by side to the ones I was eating when they were just a three store chain. It’s a good burger, or was, and good to note that they WERE a small local and well regarded “joint” before they went national!

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    • You are the first to mention Five Guys – I agree that their burger is messy but very good. Red Robin does pretty well too. The mushroom or mushroom/swiss burgers several places offer are kind of their own thing. Hardees/Carl’s Jr. has one that us ultra sloppy, but pretty good.

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  8. JP – It’s funny you should write this post on the heels of Miller’s Bar in Dearborn, Michigan announcing it is closing after 80 years in the business. The two Miller brothers are retiring and no one wants to continue the family biz. Miller’s consistently is #1 on the “Best Burger in the Metro Detroit List” and is well known for not only their mouthwatering burgers, but the way of serving them too. You go to your table or to the bar and give your order – nothing is written down. They only have one type of burger (you can stray and have cheese on it if you want), one type of fries or a bag of chips. You tell them your beverage. They bring the burger to the table, just wrapped up like fast food – same with the fries. You spread the greasy wrapper out on the table (I might cringe a little in this COVID age though). And they hand you easily 20 napkins … they’re juicy and the fries are wonderful. When you leave, it’s on the honor system – go to the register and recite your order, pay up. It’s been the same set-up for decades and always popular with the nearby Ford Motor Company workers, white and blue collar alike. It’s not a “bar-bar” atmosphere at all and people bring their families in. The staff members on our college newspaper used to regularly go there (and to Bimbos, home of the Doug Jacobs and the Red Garter Band) – our hangouts back in the day.

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      • It’s been a few years since I had one … after I did the comment, I went to see if they had pictures to vicariously enjoy one. Now instead of a bag of chips, you may choose onion rings. The comments on social media were to please find new owners who won’t change a thing!

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  9. I just remembered another burger worthy of a mention here: Carl’s Jr’s Western Bacon Cheeseburger. Like a Wendy’s single, it’s been years since I’ve had a WBC, but there’s something about the combo of burger, barbecue sauce, and onion ring that make this big boy outstanding.

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