Personally, I want a lunch-counter cheeseburger, good meat with fried onions, weighty, cooked flat, solid to the grip, with a dense, unaerated bun, sweet as a kiss and solid as a high school girls femur. It should be dripping moist, undoctored by garlic powder, cream, or Worcestershire sauce, and crowned for graduation with a mortarboard of yellow American cheese,
They are not always cheap. A hamburger at New York City’s posh restaurant “21” costs $21.95. (Even plain ketchup in that establishment is called “21 sauce.”) It is pure, unadulterated Americana. Wimpy relished them. Elvis wolfed them by the bag. Singer Ricky Nelson ate virtually nothing else. Almost as the summum bonum of life, Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction reverently pronounces, “That’s a real cheeseburger.”
Burgers are eaten with gusto in Bonnie and Clyde. The young protagonists in The Graduate, munching them in a car, seem to find the act crucial to their falling in love. Jimmy Buffett is surely declaring a symbiotic link between the two when he recorded “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Who cares if they are fattening and greasy and cholesterol heavy? (Jean Mayer of Tufts University once warned that a steady diet of hamburgers, french fries, and synthetic milk shakes could bring back scurvy.) “This is what our country is all about,” pronounced pop sociologist Vance Packard, “blandness and standardization.” What is fair and what unfair about this famous food?
I wanted to find out, so I cruised around San Diego, happily munching all kinds of burgers and fries, doing comparison taste tests and in the process expanding into a perfect beach ball. I was looking, not for the perfect wave or the perfect girl, not even the perfect wife-— I was looking for the perfect cheeseburger. I have eaten all kinds of burgers in my life. Slamburgers. Awful Burgers. Screaming Pigburgers. Ambrosia Burgers. Joe and Nemo’s. White Castle Burgers. In-N-Out Burgers. Yamburgers. I’ve had wurst-burgers in Wiener Wald in Berlin, pirozhki in Leningrad trying to duplicate the American paradigm, and what tries to pass for hamburgers, cruddled and smelling like wet socks, in various Friar Tucks, Golden Eggs, and Wimpy’s all over Merrie England.
A truism in metaphysics is that existence and essence, like being and becoming, are philosophical coordinates. “It is impossible to separate a burger from its surrounding,” writes LeRoy Woodson, Jr., in Roadside Food. “Part of the Joy of dining out on burgers is that sense of belonging the customer feels, being part of the tumult at the counter.” That’s revealing. Hamburgers, let me interpose, are prole food, no more to be expected in elegant places than kindness at a cotillion. Diners are to cheeseburgers what Egypt is to scarabs, and I expected from the start that I would probably find the best ones in unpretentious places — yes, probably diners.
Woodson goes on to say, “Occasionally a misguided grill-man will place the cheese on the bun instead of the burger and brown it under the broiler. This is a crime in my book and probably warrants some form of community restitution. Cheese and burgers must have time to get acquainted and to synergize in such a way that the cheese melts and runs down the side of the burger like lava down the slopes of Vesuvius.” These are not necessarily idle fussifications or silly crochets. Nor are they particularly elegant. I wonder if you even can get a burger at Maxim’s.
So my very first stop was at the famous Hotel del Coronado, supposedly the model for L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. No diner burgers to be had here, for sure; but I wanted to check out style, which, granted, is a subjective enough term, but not so complicated that I can’t dismiss out of hand any of the burgers I ate at the Ocean Terrace, the Del Deli, the Crown Room, and the Prince of Wales Room: all rather good but nothing particularly memorable. And, frankly, it all confirmed my suspicion that in this particular quest, I might have to beat the bushes, even descend to the lowers, that in fact to separate the millet from the barley, cheeseburgerly speaking, this was going to be a real mousehunt. And yet driving around the city in the bright sun for the express purpose of eating hamburgers was a real luxury, and even coming to learn that there were eating places in San Diego with names like Hot-Dog-on-a-Stick, the Eggcentric Cafe, Jose's Courtroom, Zoo Country, and (yes!) Thrifty Oil #159 was only a delight.
I found a delicious burger right off at a Coco’s in Chula Vista, on the corner of F Street and Broadway. There is a chain of as many as 32 or so of these around greater San Diego, and at this one, Mario, the manager, personally distinguished various offerings for me. Coco’s Combo, a 100 percent beefburger broiled on a white or wheat bun, is great; so is their meatless Gardenburger, topped with Thousand Island dressing and jack, Swiss, cheddar, or American cheese, plus salad or a bowl of soup and french fries for $6.
Another time I tried their first-rate Sourdough Cheeseburger, a big burger with sauteed onions, American cheese (I skipped the pickles) on grilled sourdough. The California Burger, with guacamole and crisp bacon, is also a gem. I visited other Coco’s. What struck me is how spanking clean the places are, that their chefs wear toques and scarves, and so I was not surprised to see achievement awards everywhere. (Their pies, homemade on the premises, are superb.)
Cleanliness, which is always important, does not, of course, in itself guarantee much, however. I have eaten several times at Rally’s, always clean — Rallyburgers (79 cents), the too-salty Big Buford (1/3-pound double cheeseburger), even the Bar B Q Cheeseburger ($1.79) — and can only say they were nothing to write home about. The In-N-Out burger, by a firm started in 1948 by the Snyder family and which just came to San Diego from Los Angeles about four years ago, is easily the best of the junk-food burgers. There are now 9 in San Diego, 39 in L.A., and 112 in California and Nevada. In-N-Out is a hospital-clean white and red, but I find the burgers, while good, a bit too salty and ultimately nothing special. The abuse of salt in American cuisine surely warrants further study.
On another day in National City I treated myself to a Carl’s Jr. “Double Dripper” — a gold-foil-wrapped, charbroiled lollapalooza called a Double Western Bacon Burger for $2.99. I got a kick out of their ironic sign, “Free Napkins,” as well as the tacky but ingenious paper placemats with bull’s eyes for winning points, inviting you to aim the juicy drips of your burger on it as you ate. (“If it doesn’t get all over the place,” say the TV ads, “it doesn’t belong in your face.") Based in Anaheim, the Carl’s Jr. chain, with its yellow-and-red decor, is, according to Jacobson and Fritschner’s Fast-Food Guide, the “ ‘California cuisine’ of the fast-food world.” They note further, “All hamburgers at Carl’s Jr. come with lettuce and tomato — a small addition of fiber that you won’t find at many other places without paying extra.”
Their Super Star Burger at $2.95 — 40 cents extra with cheese (the policy of fleecing customers who want a slice of cheese on their burgers is a standard rip-off in every fast-food restaurant) — is very tasty but hugely fatty. “In a study conducted by [the Center for Science in the Public Interest] of hamburger meat used by nine restaurant chains,” write Jacobson and Fritschner, “Carl’s Jr. was the fattiest, just nosing out Jack In The Box.”
Amazingly enough, the In-N-Out people make their own grills. Who wouldn’t be impressed by that? I’ve always loved cheeseburgers cooked on flat grills and have often found that steaming beef, whether at Wendy’s or Nathan’s Hot Dogs at Coney Island, is like steaming coats or trousers, leaving a texture in the raddled meat like gray wool.
There are strange facts to note about hamburgers. And it is not only that way with grills, but also with meat. We are all aware of the curious paradox that hamburgers made at home don’t taste that good. That a really delicious hamburger needs fat. That our taste buds are pro-fat. That lean meat can taste dull. And have you ever noticed, for instance, that grease wilts lettuce?
With hamburgers, many things matter. Color. Fat content. The splatter factor. Fresh buns. Chewiness. It is not simply a question of random wafermeat, school-bus-yellow slabs of American cheese, and round, softball-shaped buns, soft as a baby’s bottom. Chuck steak should be used, with 20 to 25 percent fat content for taste, not extra lean or ground round. And size itself matters. “Burgers do have an optimal size,” says LeRoy Woodson, Jr. “Somewhere around five ounces. [An average hamburger patty has 21 percent fat.) I feel not gratitude to those establishments that serve burgers the size of softballs that make the tendons in your jaw creak as you attempt to get your teeth around them.” (This year, in fact, McDonald’s announced that in summer 1996, without a rise in price, the size of their patties will be increased by 25 percent.)
Hamburgers taste better if handled as little as possible, according to Jane and Michael Stem in Square Meals, and ideally should be about a half-inch thick and about three to five inches in diameter. They should be cooked on a hot, diner-style grill. A cast-iron skillet will do. (“Do not use Teflon or an otherwise coated skillet,” say the Sterns. “It cannot ‘seize’ the meat, nor does it yield up the bouquet of flavor imparted by a venerable hunk of cast iron.”
I have always personally believed that the grill alone, oiled, oniony, goes a long way in making the perfect cheeseburger — a well-used grill, redolent of savory grease. Sautee a diced onion in butter, raise the heat, then slap on the patty. Salt it. (It helps seal in the juices.) “Cheeseburgers can also be made by spreading Cheez Whiz on toast, which may seem eccentric,” note the Sterns, “but in fact, this is the way it’s done at Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut — where the hamburger was invented 84 years ago.”
Also, burgers should never be cut in half like a grilled cheese sandwich. There is a cohesive symmetry between bun and burger. Cutting it is a crime against nature. How often have you bitten into a burger on one side and then taken your second bite 180 degrees from your first? Or taken any bite that was not contiguous to the previous one? One bows to the natural order of things. The tropism of delight watching the burger grow smaller and smaller, planning its attrition as you eat, is a crucial part of its plentitude. A ritual is observed in virtually every aspect.
They should not be underdone or overdone. Rawness in a hamburger (except in the center) is nauseating, despite the fact that in many circles, predominantly where the lackey mind is best observed, where insecurity always prevails, it is considered chic. (Shigatoxin in undercooked hamburgers has been proven to cause kidney failure in children; and on May 1, 1996, a grim story broke in the news that red meat in general, especially in hamburgers, significantly raises the incidence of colon cancer in both men and women.) Nor is crispness in either burger or bun necessarily a plus. As Mimi Sheraton once rather insightfully pronounced, “Crisp is not a taste.”
I TALKED TO A LOT OF TEENAGERS, en passant, about their widely shared national interest in fast food in general and hamburgers in particular. (Why did I expect any would have heard of Wimpy, never mind antediluvians like Ricky Nelson? In a class of mine at Yale, only 5 of 18 students in 1991 knew who George Harrison was.) “Quick to buy, easy to hold, cheap, and delicious,” said a pretty girl named Alicia at a downtown Burger King near Planet Hollywood — and, shoving her girlfriend Sam, burst into laughter when I suggested the same could be said of their boyfriends.
For many teenagers, eating cheeseburgers is an after-school ritual only because fast-food restaurants are where kids tend to meet — and eat. On many bus rides back to San Diego from Tijuana and environs, I was constantly struck by the aggregations of kids, not at the many parks and ball fields, but at McDonald’s and Burger Kings and Jack In The Boxes. I’m sure this depressing trend accounts for the general avoirdupoisization of this country’s teenagers, the ballooning of American kids, half of whom, last I heard, couldn’t do five pushups, never mind being able to find the city of Paris on a map. I’ve never seen so many chubbies, so much Twinkie fat. And, by the way, increase in divorce figures as well. I’m talking about latchkey children. I saw an awful lot of kids doing homework in these emporia all over San Diego. Reading Silas Marner. Eating shoestring fries. Whipping off algebra. Having another large Coke.
It is far easier to find fast-food places in downtown San Diego than it is to find public bathrooms, which is quite frankly next to impossible. But that is where people go to find bathrooms — surely the Evil Worldwide Food Cartel has figured this one out — and so it is also the place where, in the process, smelling hot food and delicious aromas, they tend to approach the counter for a meal. I wonder where as a youth, when roaming around, I found facilities. Churches were unlocked then. I went there. But merchants were kinder then as well and let you into the back. Today that’s not done. No one gives change anymore. Lets you use phone books. Or has time to give you directions to the next block.
What struck me, further, is how universal an interest in cheeseburgers over hamburgers there generally is among men and boys, whereas with women and girls, not having that extra slice of cheese crucially matters. It is a bit of trend-spotting, quickly reinforced by more than six or seven fast-food managers I spoke with. And I remember a survey back a few years ago among high school girls in which most confessed their “primary interest” was, in this order, (1) slimness, (2) boys. Was it sexist of me to be so flabbergasted? But then you see, I’m an eater of cheeseburgers and male.
Complaints proliferated. “What I hate is when they overcook the bun. Heating it, I mean,” Chuck told me at a Carl’s Jr., while telling the counter man specifically not to do so with his double cheese-burger. “When they grill it, it can taste like charcoal, know what I mean?” Another couple of girls sitting outside at the zoo, when I asked them what they liked or disliked about hamburgers, told me that they liked, not fast-food places, but smaller restaurants, where you could get a personalized burger. Janet said, “I’ve eaten tons of burgers in my life off the zipper line.”
Assembly-line hamburgers can be daunting. LeRoy Woodson, Jr., who dislikes the McDonald’s chain, could easily be fulminating against any one of a number of places when he writes, “There’s something sinister and totalitarian about a bushel of Styrofoam-encapsulated Big Macs sitting under a heat lamp...orders filled before they are placed.” Nevertheless, a perfectly grilled burger is a work of art. Any true first-class grill man, molding a hamburger to plump perfection, slapping and shaping the chopped meat, is, according to Mr. Woodson, transferring not only body heat to the burgers, but also a lot of love and affection. He claims that an experienced grill man has a ticking clock in his head that knows precisely how long to cook a burger, two minutes a side for rare, three for medium.
Don’t get too excited, however, about tiny, privately managed eating spots. Small cafes and local burger joints are often no better than the larger franchises when it comes to quality. I went out of my way, for instance, to try a burger at Granger’s Cafe on El Cajon Boulevard (“Home of the Real Hamburger”) but was served yet another dull, crapulous, prefrozen patty, their Double jumbo Burger for $4.15, on a dish with a burial mound of stiff, murderously hot (having just been immolated in grease) deep-fried crinkle-cut fries and white, slick packets of Hollen’s ketchup. A good way of spotting the generic burger is by its resinous taste. On the other hand, Red Robin’s, a national chain, with about 18 kinds of burgers — and also great shakes — are good.
Abysmal were burgers I tried at Viva Burgers on West Harbor Drive and Canada Steak Burger on University Avenue, but not half as bad as Charley’s Famous Hamburgers at the eastern end of Lemon Grove — what cretinous Candide names these places? — with its sad little fountain and stunted ficus trees and melancholy little shed out back. Charley’s also served kabobs, baklava, corn dogs, and, for all I know, hunting equipment for sherpas. I found the sign “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” sociologically diagnostic. My purchase, the Triple Cheeseburger, at $2.97, an iron-stale Country Fair bun with standard whipping cheese, tasted like deceased loquats. I asked a question or two. Said a man with a Greek accent, “The oil is fresh.”
Hamburgers at the trendy Corvette Diner on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, with its veggie baguettes and calamari steak sandwiches, are wildly overrated. The place is hysterical with neon signs, Mobil oil adverts, hubcaps, and a pink-green-black-checked linoleum floor, all Elvisiana and hot-rod motifs and soda fountain kitsch.
I had a vodka concoction called a Kiwi Bananarama just to keep up with all the hipness there and sipped it while staring at the oversized photos on the walls of stars like Roy Orbi-son, Jackie Gleason, and Little Richard and listening to the banging flatware and blaring music and waitresses howling across the room at one another. Corvette is easily one of the noisiest places on the face of the earth, and if Celine had ever designed a restaurant, a Voyage au bout de la nuit-of-a-joint, it would have been this place. Even the ’50s poodle-pink menu gave me a headache.
I asked a loud, gumsnapping waitress, bold in her black uniform and full of attitude, with noir lipstick and sleek terror-on-a-bun dyed black hair, what was their biggest seller. “The meat loaf,” she quacked, flintily eyeing me — and quickly added with knowing smugness and oh such disarming acuity, “You’re going to open a restaurant.” I ordered from the rock ’n’ roll “souvenir menu” (“Try Our Famous Wild ’n’ Wacky Jell-O Shooters,” etc.) a meatless Dee Dee on a whole-wheat bun ($5.75) and was served a crusty, semi-underdone pucklet of oatmeal with American cheese, French’s yellow mustard, and more mealiness than Mr. Potato Head. They give you two lumps of Bazooka bubble gum along with your check. I thought that was cute.
WE HAVE MENTIONED HOW IN-N-OUT BURGER, going the extra mile, makes its own grills. But almost everything with In-N-Out, started in 1948 in Baldwin Park, as I say, by Harry and Esther Snyder — a drive-through stand with a two-way speaker — is quality. All the burgers are made with fresh, 100 percent beef that is never frozen. They still don’t own a single freezer, microwave, or heat lamp. They “hand-leaf’ their lettuce every day. Buns there are made without preservatives the old-fashioned way, from real sponge dough. Fries, peeled and diced daily from Kennebec potatoes, are cooked in 100 percent cholesterol-free vegetable oil. A man with an “I Only Play Golf on Days that End in a Y” hat whom I talked to down at the In-N-Out location in National City at 24th Street, boasted to me, “I eat ten In-N-Outs a day.” That ends in a Y, I thought.
Burger fanatics and devotees I met carry in their wallets the red-and-gold In-N-Out Burger foldout location guide listing the various addresses and directions of I&O spots. They do have yummy burgers, and I love the 1940s Dagwood and Blondie Formica booths and red tiles and palm tree insignia. The Double-Double Burger (double meat, double cheese) with french fries and a medium drink is a classic, but I knew, even upon finishing my lip-smack In-N-Out, I still hadn’t found El Dorado.
I enjoyed a great burger — a Saskaburger, easily one of the best — at Saska’s, a family business on Mission Boulevard in Mission Beach, a steak house where they cut their own meat and grind their own beef. Another good place, also a steak house, is Bully’s, started 30 years ago by George Bullington. I ate a Bullyburger in Bird Rock, on La Jolla Boulevard, and I’m sure its taste increased with the six beers I had before it.
The homemade meat loaf sandwich served on focaccia bread with Gruyire cheese, aioli and sauteed vegetables at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, while technically not a hamburger, is close enough and delicious beyond the telling. Other significantly good burgers I enjoyed were at two Jewish delicatessens, Samson’s in La Jolla and D.Z. Akin’s at 70th Street on Alvarado Road — both have their own bakeries — and at Islands in Clairemont, with a great list of burgers, fried on a grill with a good bun, served in a basket with waxed paper, as in the 1950s, each for around $5: the Big Wave, the Pipeline, the Makaha (with chili and cheese), the Sunset, the Maui (with guacamole), and for the Californian palate, the Hawaiian, which is served with pineapple.
I can go along, to some degree, with Mr. Woodson’s harmless but slightly hyperbolic idea in Roadside Food that condiments are the customer’s particular “contribution to the creative process and the expression of his individuality,” but I do not like and have never liked too much business on a burger. Not on a burger. Not on a pizza. Not in salads that go spilling into your lap. But, I mean really, what about pineapple?
Pineapple, queerly, is a popular condiment in San Diego, according to a good many people I met. At Fuddruckers, for example, a national chain, one of the attractions is that you can personally adorn your naked burger. I went to one at Grossmont Center in La Mesa and was amazed at the variety of toppings available, some inexplicable and a few off-putting. The repertoire includes not only the standard LTOPM grouping (let me mention, parenthetically, that pickles on hamburgers disgust me) but ketchup, mustard, relish, and, I can’t see why, chili, which is usually beanless and very popular in the South and West. Fops use sprouts and imported cheese. Californians love avocado. But pineapple? I can’t understand it. Generally, natural condiments and whole and fresh foods are tasty, but fruit and meat? Some things are just gastronomically unbearable. (I had a Hungarian roommate in college who used to put sugar on his fried eggs.) And what is “secret sauce”?
Secret sauce used on hamburgers is often nothing more than a mayonnaise rlmoulade, an oily, sweet-sour emulsion that, in the words of Mimi Sheraton, “should be thrown, if not overboard, then down the toilet.”
The nutritional value of what we add to the common hamburger cannot be discounted. But it is a matter that is often mighty subjective. Says Woodson, a latitudinarian in this matter, and some might even think illogical if not foolish, “Rachel Carson I’m not, but I am well acquainted with the ecosystem that is my body, and when it comes to feeding myself, I subscribe to a single commandment —any food I craved as a kid is probably still very good for me. Years before my friends became music video directors, corporation PR men, or assistant professors acquiring tastes for osso buco, sashimi, and other culinary affectations that any self-respecting kid would cough into a napkin, they sat at my birthday parties in short pants, dribbling ketchup on themselves and joyously devouring cheeseburgers. It was as if, still tender from the womb, they could hear Mother Nature in all her inscrutable wisdom whisper, ‘Cheeseburgers are good for you. Cheeseburgers make you happy.’ It’s a cheery message, although it’s rather a piiy it’s not true.”
An overwhelming fact is that 58 million Americans are overweight, more than ever before. In the past ten years, the average American has gained eight pounds. Does the new stress on high-protein diet speak to this? New books like The Zone by Barry Sears and Michael and Mary Eades’s Protein Power insist that because protein is nutrient-dense, it can help people lose weight and provides energy, especially in sports. Does this apply to hamburgers? Doubtful. The so-called gloom rating of high fat in cheeseburgers today is, in many places, over the top. (A Roy Rogers cheeseburger contains 1404 mg of sodium, almost half of the maximum recommended daily level. And Wendy’s Triple Cheeseburger contains 15 teaspoons of fat, the highest of all fast foods.)
A sociologically diagnostic fact is that ever since Mr. Ray Kroc in 1955 opened the doors ©f that first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois, fast-food restaurants have become primary places to eat. Way back in 1960 Americans chose fast-food restaurants — or as they became known in the trade, “limited menu” establishments — only 1 in 20 times when they ate out, which wasn’t often. So even with protein now fashionable, maybe we should look to a healthy burger. M.F.K. Fisher offers a good one (with oyster sauce and red table wine!) in The Art of Eating. Soybean burgers are delicious. You want a real healthy burger? Scissor this out:
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup chopped onions
- 1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper
- 1/4 cup finely chopped celery
- 1 cup cooked soybeans
- 1 cup cooked brown rice
- 1/4 cup flour Water
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sesame seeds for coating
In a small skillet, heat the oil over low heat. Add the onion, green pepper, and celery, and sautee until tender. Add the soybeans, rice, and flour to the skillet, and mix. Add a little water, if necessary, to bind the mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Form mixture into four patties, coat on both sides with sesame seeds, and sautl until both sides are golden. Serve hot in hamburger rolls.
I TRAVELED FAR AND WEE, also visiting a lot of San Diego greasy spoons and grapplesnapping (an expression I will explain anon) at a good many of those hot, sweaty, petroleum-redolent, garage-proof lube-burgers. To paraphrase Stephen Vincent Benet, “I have fallen in love with hamburger names / The sharp names that always get fat...."
Fatburger, Full of Bull, Wienerschnitzel, Burger King, etc. These are the outsized, 56-inch-waisted, goose-cheeked, tubby, yumballish names of Eat and Chawnk and Nost, presided over by St. Marfak, Patron Saint of Grease. I sampled cheeseburgers at Video Ray’s Lunchburger; Olympic Cafe and Western Steak Burger, both on University Avenue, mecca for burger joints, mostly awful ones; the Wienerschnitzel in Hillcrest, with its Dog & Burger; Lunchwagon Burgers in the Gaslamp somewhere; and also Fargo’s Bar-B-Que on Imperial Avenue. I found the hamburgers here virtually all alike, almost to a one, spare, unoriginal, dull, charmless, common garden-variety, coastersized sandwiches on stiff, unappetizing buns that left on one’s tongue the taste of galoshes or sludge or a gust of cinders after walking through a train tunnel on a rainy day. Most of them were neither good nor bad but just nothing.
Correction. On some I even tasted skin oil! Sebum! Can you imagine, taste of human on a burger? I don’t want to sound like Howard Hughes, but it happens. Amino acid present on the palms of human hands, often exuded in sweat, has been isolated as serine and has been proven to be repellent even to fish. Some races, whites chiefly, exude more of this than others. Youngsters and women exude less serine than adult males. Bass won’t bite lures handled by sweaty fishermen, which is why a good many fishermen I know wash their hands with soap, especially after handling outboard motors, before going fishing. (Gasoline and oil are repellent to fish, while soap does not bother them — in fact, catfish have been caught on hooks with laundry soap as bait.) As the advertisement for the movie Babe says, “A little pig goes a long way.”
I spent one morning in the National City area indulging in various fare and taking random notes. With a demotic sense of fairness, I had the requisite Burger King cheeseburger, another one at McDonald’s, and yet another across from the Vet’s Thrift Store at one of a chain of red barns called the Boll Weevil (“Home of the Famous 1/2 Ib. Steerburger”). I assume that the word steer, gulling the male customer, has more to do with ideas of virility than anything of meat. I am afraid these hamburgers, all bellybusters and mouthfeel, basically filled a person up and had little to do with taste. I drove down to the Mexican border, desperately trying to digest my meals, and on the way back stopped at a Jack In The Box, the VW of hamburgers, for a Grilled Sourdough Burger with bacon, cheese, tomato and mayo, dispatching in an instant the slight escarbille of meat, which frankly had the metallic aftertaste of crystal meth or crank (or of tweakers, the white trash drub). I confess to having enjoyed the Chili Cheese Curly Fries much more. (I was told that Cheese Curly Fries are unique to San Diego.)
I ordered with high expectation the supposedly “three-napkin-messy” Jumbo Jack — $3.09 with regular fries and a regular soft drink—from their Jack’s Under-a-Buck Menu, but it was dry, insipid, tasteless, and flat; and I concluded that this red-print-on-adobe chain, which originated in San Diego, simplicity itself, unchallenging, sans style, unadorned, without flash, utterly bereft of taste, is as proletarian as a serf in gum boots, is a citizen of Minsk.
Jack In The Box founder Robert O. Peterson developed Jack In The Box, the first drive-through restaurant, in 1951. It was Jack In The Box that introduced the industry’s first breakfast sandwich, along with the very first prepackaged portable salad. Too bad they haven’t put a little more R&D into their hamburgers, which, when vou bite into one of them, taste a lot like biting into woolen mittens.
In 1973 Time devoted a cover story to the Big Mac, "The Burger that Conquered the Country." “When I want meat, I want a steak. But when I want a hamburger, I want a Big Mac,” wrote columnist Gael Greene a few years ago in New York magazine. “It has all those disreputable things—cheese made of glue, Russian dressing three generations removed from the steppes, and this very thin patty of something that is very close to meat. It’s an incredibly decadent eating experience. And I love the malts — thick, sweet. and ice-cold. They’re better than if they were real.”
I went to a Burger King on University Avenue one afternoon (“We serve cheeseburgers for breakfast,” read a sign in the window) and, sitting across from a lot of Volvo Republicans, loud blond guys from San Diego State frat houses, and various college yahoos, ordered a Whopper with everything. On one of Burger King’s official paper placemats I read, under “Anatomy of the Whopper,” what I can only assume was written in all seriousness, “Serrated edges make fresh pickles more appetizing and anchor other condiments during crucial first bite” and “Attractive stripes on flame-broiled patty signify bona fide flavor.” The burger was humid, chewy, microwaved to death, and the onions were papery. Tasting one of the same burgers in a famous taste test back in 1973, renowned chef Julia Child said she liked neither Burger King’s soft buns nor their burgers. “The Big Mac I like least," she said, “because it’s all bread. But the french fries are surprisingly good.... It’s not what you would call a balanced meal; it’s nothing but calories. But it would keep you alive.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.
I remember first hearing the name McDonald’s when I was bumboating to Greece from Brindisi in the summer of 1965. Two Californian kids were leaning over the rail, and the one who had just thrown half a sausage sandwich into the blue Adriatic grizzled, “What I wouldn’t give for a McDonald’s right now.” What intrigued me was the assumption on both their parts that the name was universal. James Beard complained, “McDonald’s is a great machine that belches forth hamburgers. The whole thing is aimed at the six-year-old palate. They don’t salt things enough, and the malts taste like melted ice cream.” Novelist Vance Bourjaily balefully views the popularity of McDonald’s as a sign that America is “a failing culture.” (I wonder, did he laugh as hard as I did when on one Saturday Night Live, Buck Henry dryly announced, “Ray Kroc is McDead”?) Bourjaily grumpily goes on to explain, “This country is full of people who have forgotten what good food is. Eating in most countries is a basic pleasure, but people in the U.S. don’t eat for pleasure. To them, eating is just something done in response to advertising.”
And yet even such a chef as Craig Claiborne admitted, “The hamburgers are quite swallowable. There is a highly compatible onion flavor,” but he thought they could put more pickle on the hamburger, and, he added, “I would rank them on a par with Howard Johnson’s hamburgers.” However, Mimi Sheraton said Howard Johnson’s hamburgers were worse than McDonald’s, and she loathed McDonald’s.
There are as many as 45 McDonald’s in the San Diego area. (Beating them out by a hair. Jack In The Box has 46.) The busiest McDonald’s in the United States, I have heard, is one in San Ysidro, on the frontera. The world’s largest McDonald’s however, I have it on the best authority, is located, not even in the United States of America, but in the People’s Republic of China, on the corner of Wong Fujing Street — Beijing’s Fifth Avenue — and Chang Aq Jie, which is adjacent to the Beijing Hotel and runs into Tianamen Square. A huge fiberglass statue of Ronald McDonald is seated on a bench out front, and more Chinese — and even Americans — stop to take photographs there than at the Temple of Heaven.
I FINISHED MY HAMBURGER TOUR FATTER and fuller and fubsier than I have ever felt in my life. I had eaten burgers on a spectrum of color from red to black, from pink to gray, from orange to green. I had wolfed down more kinds of cheese than can be found in all of Wisconsin and eaten at places named everything from the Gas Haus to the Surf City Squeeze, from Faque Burgers to Sluggo’s and Sweetlips, from the Dog Beach Deli to Zip’s Tummy Busters to Ollie Ollie Aux’n Free. I had dispatched more bread and meat and vegetables in a span of five days in San Diego than any six fat Dutchmen.
I will conclude by giving the gold medal. It goes to the brilliant Slamburger at Danny’s Palm Bar & Grill (“Home of the Slamburger”) on 965 Orange Avenue, Coronado, which serves also first-rate Mexican specialties, a different one for each day of the week. The original quarter-pound Slamburger is $3.75. To me it is perfectly grilled burger, the kind that makes you give in to “grapple-snapping”—a word Liz Taylor, at one time a huge burger freak, invented for crazed noshing. Back in 1982, Liz, or “Footers,” as her then-husband Senator John Warner affectionately called her, a woman who, with “obese eyes” and round as a playing field Super Ball, weighed 180 pounds-plus. (She claims that when she weighed below 120 pounds, her bust vanished.)
Danny’s Slamburger, the American original, is solid, handmade, juicy, inexpensive, absolutely delicious, and is served with crisp onion, tomato, and lettuce on a fresh bun. It is a gem. Danny’s Palm Bar’s simple, lime-green single-sheet menu reads, “Our owner, a true ‘white collar’ criminal, committed industrial espionage in 1957 by stealing the original burger technique from the Kewpie drive-in somewhere in the Midwest. Sensitive to today’s health consciousness, he substitutes his secret herbs and spices in place of salt. We start with lean ground beef or turkey, grill it just the way you like it, place it on a fresh bakery bun, and top it off with cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion.”
We are on the cusp of the hamburger’s centenary. The broiled or fried hamburger sandwich in a bun first appeared in 1903-1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis Fair), and the Slamburger, like its cousins, is the crowning achievement in a long history going back to those distant days when red meat, shredded with a dull knife, was eaten raw by the rugged citizens of Estonia, Finland, and Latvia prior to the Napoleonic era. We are told in Doyne Nickerson’s thorough 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger how “the custom migrated to Hamburg, Germany, the largest seaport in Europe at that time. Prior to the turn of the century,” he goes on to observe, “sailors from Hamburg docking in New York City patronized the eating stands along the piers. They insisted that their beef be chopped and placed between buns so they could take it back aboard ship in bags.” Whether in Tallinn or Coronado, whether the meat is well done or raw, whether on-board ship or on land, have a hamburger, and, while eating one, know you can now say with the Italians, “Canto anno!”
Theroux is author of three highly regarded novels—Three Wogs, Darconville’s Cat, and An Adultery as well as a collection of poems and the recent non-fiction, Primary Colors. Theroux’s Secondary Colors is to be published in Spring 1996.