Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Proto-Burger

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a blustery autumnal week eating and learning my way through a week in New York and New England. Specifically, the Connecticut Valley, carved by the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers, is a nexus from which essential components of Americana have flowed. This small area brought us the cotton gin (1793), the steamboat (1787), Colt's automatic revolver (1836), the lollipop (1892), the Frisbee (1920), and the Almond Joy (1946). Incidentally, as the location of the first telephone exchange (1878), the first hamburger (1895), and nearly the first American pizza (1925), New Haven, Connecticut was the first place in the world where one could plausibly have dialed up a friend to discuss plans to meet for pizza or burgers.

There are several competing claims to the origination of the American hamburger sandwich. In fact, there's a saga of competition between New Haven and Athens, Texas, Seymour, Wisconsin and Tulsa, Oklahoma. You can read all about the controversy here, here and here. But frankly, all of this arguing just makes me hungry, and I can't eat historical claims for lunch. As a result, I'm attributing custody of the legacy to Louis' Lunch, just across the street from the Yale campus, for its indisputable title as the oldest continuously operating hamburger establishment in the United States. 

The story is simple, if not predictably apocryphal: one day in 1900, a busy customer asked for a meal he could take with him. (so far this sounds a lot like the story of the nacho, the ice cream cone, the hot dog, etc.). Louis Lassen, who'd been operating his little luncheonette for 5 years at this point, was up for the task, and threw together a sandwich made from ground beefsteak trimmings and some toast. And voila - instant American institution. I'll reiterate that I'm not completely on board with this story as The Origin of The Hamburger, but I give them points for continuing to tell it for 110 years.

There are plenty of reasons to avoid Louis' Lunch. First, it's probably closed. The family operating the joint run it mostly as a hobby, and often shut down during sporting events or family vacations. Secondly, it's small. The entire building is roughly the size of a suburban McDonald's kitchen, and has all the charm of a blacksmith shop. Service is gruff, the line is long, and seats are few. You can't get lettuce, ketchup or mustard, (although tomatoes, onions and cheese are options) and your burger will come on toasted white bread, not a fluffy bun. Sides are sparse: potato salad or potato chips. The former comes in a styrofoam cup, and is tasty enough; it's a great way to stave off hunger during the wait for your burger, which might take 45 minutes.
Potato salad appetizer

Our Promise to You
One item of particular note is the hardware being used in this culinary time capsule. Cranking away continually, next to the ferris-wheel bread toasting machine, are original 1898 vertical cast-iron stoves made long ago by the long-defunct Bridge & Beach Company in St. Louis. Patties are broiled standing up, manually inserted and removed from these fire-breathing monsters in hinged wire baskets. The result is a burger freed by gravity of extraneous grease and a kitchen that feels and smells downright medieval. 
The steampunkiest broiler ever

You might assume that Coca-Cola, another bastion of Americana, would be a welcome addition to this proto-burger. But you would be wrong, and failing to remember that New Englanders' patriotism is both national and staunchly regional. At Louis' Lunch, Coke is explicitly banned from the premises; a vintage sign bearing an image of the classic hoopskirt bottle is on the wall, but has been marked with a bright red circle and a line crossed through it. Here in New England, beverage accompaniments include locally-made sodas from Foxon Park. It's served in glass bottles, and comes in a variety of flavors, including Kola, White Birch, Cream Soda, Iron Brew, among others. Their Gassosa is a crisper answer to a Sprite of Seven-Up, and as is true for all Foxon Park beverages, the sweetener is God-intended plain cane.
Local favorite
But finally, at long last, you'll get your burger. Just as good art thrives on restriction, the final product here is good not because of what it is, but because of what it isn't. I can't imagine voluntarily ordering a burger on white bread with tomatoes and onions and no lettuce, but these constraints give the Louis Lunch burger its uniqueness. It drips with juice and soaks the crunchy bread, and the tomato adds a veil of civilization to what is basically a hunk of broiled beef and toast.

Beefy glory

Such quirkiness is exactly what the birthplace of the hamburger should provide; it's less a meal than it is a historical snapshot. And it was worth the wait.

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