There is nothing I like better than a good hamburger or cheeseburger. Some of my earliest memories of eating burgers come from visits in Ohio with my great aunt Loule. My mother and I would go with her to a shopping mall in Columbus, usually to visit the Lazarus store there. Nearby was Woolworths, and we would always have lunch there at the lunch counter, where I would order a hamburger, fries and a vanilla milk shake served in a tall glass, with the remainder in a cold stainless steel cylinder.
I believe my earliest recollections of burgers are from New Mexico. My mom would pick up burgers from a fast food place or cook them on the stove. I remember consuming them while watching cartoons or I Love Lucy on a black and white TV in our family room. I grew up loving hamburgers. I was puzzled, when I watched Pop-Eye, as to why Wimpey’s love of burgers seemed to be presented as a bad thing, while Pop-Eye’s consumption of spinach was good. I did not like spinach at all. But I liked Pop-Eye, anyhow.
When I got to college, I was overjoyed to discover that every Friday for lunch they would be serving hamburgers in the cafeteria. Some students seemed unhappy with the weekly repetition, but for me it was a delight—especially considering the choices in meals we had on the other days of the week. I soon looked forward to Friday, and not because it meant the beginning of the weekend.
Although the overwhelming majority of my experiences with burgers have been very positive, there have been a handful of times that were less than ideal. The worst hamburger I ever had in my life was in Zurich, Switzerland. The year was 1976 and I was on my way to Israel. We stayed overnight in Switzerland and I spent an afternoon wandering about the beautiful city, visiting Lake Zurich and the church where the Protestant Reformer Zwingli had preached. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped in a shopping center and found a restaurant there that advertised “American Style Hamburgers.” They lied. Actually, I think they just had no idea how to make a hamburger. The thing that the meat was served upon did not quite look like a bun, nor did it taste like one. It was hard to tell exactly what sort of bread-like substance it was supposed to be. The meat may have been actual ground cow, but I would not take a bet on it. The condiments resembled the color red, and there was something green that perhaps, if you didn’t taste it, resembled a pickle. But in reality, there was neither mustard nor ketchup anywhere close to the “burger,” and the taste of the thing in no way came close to resembling anything my mother had ever given me. I was very disappointed.
I spent the remainder of that summer in Israel not eating any hamburgers at all. Once, riding on a bus near Jerusalem, I spotted a hamburger place: Wimpy Burgers. Unfortunately, I was on a tour bus and we drove by without stopping. I never saw any other burger places. Therefore, the first meal I had upon my return to the United States a was a fast food burger. I remember it as one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had. In the mid 1970’s, the big American fast food restaurants had not, as yet, made their way across the Atlantic. If you visit Europe or Israel today, of course, you’ll easily find the familiar fast food places on every corner.
The hamburger, as we know it today, was invented in the United states in 1900 at a place called Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. The story is told that one day in 1900 a local businessman ran into the restaurant and pleaded for a lunch to go. Louis Lassen, the restaurant owner, sandwiched broiled hamburger between two slices of toast and gave it to the customer. To this day, Louis’ Lunch still makes their hamburgers the way they made that first one, by flame broiling the burgers vertically in an antique cast iron gas stove. They are served on two square pieces of toasted white bread with cheese, tomato or onion—but never ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise.
Since then, the burger has become ubiquitous in the United States and can be found in most countries around the world. Burgers today, of course, are usually served on a bun, with a variety of condiments and styles. There are few restaurants of any sort in the United States where you can’t order a decent burger. Even the local Mexican restaurants often have burgers as an option on their menu, though even someone like me, who loves burgers above all other foods, finds it hard to fathom why someone would go to a Mexican restaurant and then order a burger.