catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 8 :: 2007.04.20 — 2007.05.04


Cheeseburgers in Paradise

One thing is for certain in the U.S.: we love to eat. To a fault, we double our portions and loosen our belt buckles. In our local gazettes or local news shows, many reports note, ironically side by side at times, both the best burgers around and the statistically “fattest” cities. Many of us have a place in our hometown pasted in our mental albums or memories of road-trip restaurants where we’ve found the best burgers around. There’s a sort of quaint territorialism as we debate the best of our hometown and around town burgers. Many are deeply committed to their burgers. I am a member of that community. I don’t have them too often but they are certainly a celebration. A group of colleagues could debate over lunch: the Midwestern fellow could argue for the genuine quality of a Steak-N-Shake burger, the Texan that of Whataburger, the west-coast consumer his In-N-Out burger and the east-coast carnivore claims Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut.

It’s not just the burger we’re consumed with. It’s the experience. Aside from ingredients, preparation, and consumption, it’s the people around us with whom we experience our burger. Much like the movies, it’s who we consume with and the conversations that stem from those experiences that resonate so loudly. Whether sitting in the booth of your favorite diner or on the deck or patio of our humble abode, burgers are an American staple. There are stories behind the burgers as much as there are about our burgers. Of all the photo albums utilized as bookends on the mantle or that collect dust in boxes, there are perhaps more than a few that include some sort of McDonald’s birthday party.  Even if the local eateries don’t suit your fancy then there are many familial recipes and tricks of the trade to learn. From the gas vs. charcoal debate, to using oatmeal to keep the meat moist, the right amount of egg to prevent patty destruction, to the various uses of “special” spices and sauces, the burger is an ideal manifestation of culinary art and human experience.

In our increasingly sensitive world of culinary party lines, vegans and carnivores are finding common ground on the burger platform. Though technically a paradox of fundamental proportions, veggie burgers are now becoming common fare at cookouts. Some abstain for moral and ethical reasons. Others in the face of Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me continue to refuse and stubbornly declare, “I’ll never stop eating burgers”, regardless of the visual deterrence. The burger comes in all shapes and sizes. It comes in all forms of ethnic variance. From the Baja to the bacon, mushroom Swiss, mini-crab, BBQ cheddar, and the veggie to the element of size as in the case of the Roaring Fork’s “Big Ass Burger” in Austin, Texas (the jalapeño corn bread is amazing, by the way). 

The debate and fascination is articulated most vividly and humorously in the iconic tune of Jimmy Buffett with his classic song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. Whether a literal paradise such as Paradise California, Montana, Nevada, Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Pennsylvania, or Utah, one thing is for sure, paradise can be found in all of the above and then some.

But at night I'd have these wonderful dreams
Some kind of sensuous treat.                 
Not zucchini, fettuccini, or bulgur wheat,            
But a big warm bun and a huge hunk of meat.

Cheeseburger is paradise.
Heaven on earth with an onion slice.
Not too particular, not too precise.
I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise.

I like mine with lettuce and tomato,            
Heinz Fifty-seven and French fried potatoes.         
Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer.             
Well, good God Almighty, which way do I steer

For a cheeseburger in paradise
Makin' the best of every virtue and vice.
Worth every damn bit of sacrifice
To get a cheeseburger in paradise.

The idea of the cheeseburger in paradise came from an experience Buffett had on a voyage of his first boat, the Euphoria. They had some issues at sea and had resorted to a canned foot diet. It was here that the image of a cheeseburger began to overwhelm Jimmy. As they arrived and tied-up, they kissed the ground and made their way down the marina to the restaurant where they found American cheeseburgers on the menu: “The overdone burgers on the burned, toasted buns tasted like manna from heaven, for they were the realization of my fantasy burgers on the trip. That's the true story.” I can say I had a similar experience while spending a summer in Eastern Europe. I hadn’t been home in weeks and was beginning to hit the end of my ability to stabilize on unfamiliar food. We came upon a local shop in Parnu, Estonia that served the best equivalent possible and we ate to our hearts’ content and washed it down with Fanta. For some reason, as I sat in that little shop with my two buddies, who had also fantasized about a good burger, we found ourselves immensely satisfied. Why? It’s hard to pinpoint but there certainly is something about the experience of the burger, with friends.

There are many homegrown burger experiences we could dwell on and I offer only a few with their stories. Down on 6th Street in Austin, Texas one will find a little shack known as Hut’s Hamburgers. The nostalgic décor enlightens the culinary experience. I washed mine down with a vanilla shake. Opened by Homer “Hut” Hutson, the shack is a local staple in Austin and carries with it a touch of old and new flair and mouth-watering burgers. Then there’s the In-N-Out Burger. You can catch wind of this little joint in movies like The Big Lebowski and Swingers but you should probably try it out yourself. This little gem began around the same time and place as McDonald’s, in 1948 Southern California. So why hasn’t it evolved like our monstrous conglomerate friend has? Simple! The In-N-Out Burger is made only, literally, with the freshest ingredients that are delivered to the stores every day, i.e. never frozen. The burger doesn’t hit the grill until you utter your culinary delight. This is part of the reason why the franchise has not been bred further east.  According to In-N-Out, they own NO microwaves, heat lamps, or freezers, i.e. you won’t find them in the restaurant and they bake their buns “using old-fashioned, slow-rising sponge dough”. What about the fries? No problem. In-N-Out has their potatoes shipped fresh from the farm and they’re cut right in the store, one-at-a-time and cooked in 100% pure cholesterol-free vegetable oil, not to mention the delightful milk-shakes made from real ice-cream. You’ll find a limited, but meaningful menu at In-N-Out with only a Double-Double, Cheeseburger, Hamburger, Fries, Shakes and Drinks. You might even feel like you’re at church as you’ll discover Scripture verses around the bottom rims of their beverage cups and around the burger wrappers. In-N-Out is a privately owned and self-sufficient eatery with a great sense of tradition, simplicity, and most importantly stellar food.

Other notables are endless and could be documented at a ridiculous level. The friendly debates linger and the imaginations soar (I want one right now!). Regardless of one’s affinity regarding the burger, we can’t ignore its vast presence in our culture. Burgers for me are about the people who share my passion. It’s sitting down at a tiny table with my college friends at Charley’s Old Fashioned Hmbgs on Grandbury Road in Ft. Worth, Texas. It’s the late night run to Whataburger while procrastinating from finals. It’s kneading the spices and meat with my buddy Buck as homemade delights are made at our annual college-reunion. It’s certainly a simple satisfaction to a temporary hunger. More than that, it’s the stories behind the burgers and surrounding the burgers that make burgers bigger than life. We know that food can be a solace for sorrow. For good or for bad, many a burger has offered a brief relief. Maybe even a little song comes to mind and you may begin to hum it even now: “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun, please”. The advertising and marketing worked. It sticks with us. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily put the Big-Mac on par with any true burger from a genuine mom-n-pop shop, but nonetheless it’s there. Whether ordering your morsel like a Sex and the City gal, with a Cosmopolitan, or with the quantity of Jim Belushi’s iconic “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger” on SNL, or with the appetite of Wimpy from Popeye, or with the attitude of Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” television ad campaign, from Big Boy to Fuddruckers, White Castle, Fatburger, Burger King, or even fictitious burger joints like Pulp Fiction’s the Big Kahuna Burger, the burger is a unique and ubiquitous ingredient in the meat loving layers of our lives.

Here are some of my favorite burger joints:

  • Charley’s Old fashioned Hmbgs in Ft. Worth, Texas
  • Kincaid’s in Ft. Worth, Texas
  • Jack’s Burger House in Dallas, Texas
  • Buck’s Smack Shack in Frisco, Texas
  • The Rouge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania  
  • Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut
  • Hut’s in Austin, Texas
  • In-N-Out Burger in Hollywood, California

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