A Culture Revealed Through Comfort Food In a series of short books, writer John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has celebrated American culture through food. He tells Debbie Elliott about the latest, Hamburgers and Fries.
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A Culture Revealed Through Comfort Food

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A Culture Revealed Through Comfort Food

A Culture Revealed Through Comfort Food

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John T. Edge is a meticulous researcher. He digs through archives. He conducts interviews and he eats and eats. Edge is he author of one book called "Apple Pie," another called "Fried Chicken." His newest is "Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story." Sprinkled amidst the history and sociology are recipes for chili buzz burgers(ph), Juicy Lucy's and San Antonio specials to name a few. Joining me now from Oxford, Mississippi, to talk burgers, John T. Edge.

Mr. JOHN T. EDGE (Author, "Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story"): Glad to be with you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So your book on hamburgers is much more than a cookbook. I would say it's almost a manifesto.

Mr. EDGE: There's a bit of righteous indignation in the face of things like, I don't know, tofu burgers. Yes, there's a bit of a Jeremiahed in the book.

ELLIOTT: So as you're traveling around the country, many of the towns that you visit claim to be the place where burger meets bun.

Mr. EDGE: They do and I think a lot of that's kind of provincial bluster, and I admire it. Really there's about four. There's Seymour, Wisconsin, where local folks say that in 1885 Charlie Nagreen, who at that time was 15, slipped a meatball between two slices of bread and dubbed it a hamburger. Another story's told, it's from Oklahoma. It's got Oscar Bilby. And his great-grandson still runs a drive-in in Tulsa. They claim--the Bilby family claims that this came from a Fourth of July picnic in 1891. Fletcher Davis, of Athens, Texas, claims that--or the adherents of his story claimed that in 1904 the burger was introduced to the Demimond(ph) at the St. Louis World's Fair. And then there's Louie's Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, where they claim, in 1900, that they first cooked the hamburger as we know it.

All of the stories have some shred of truth. But what I think you can take from this is all this is happening, all these stories are told, in the late 1800s, early 1900s. As America becomes a more urban culture, it's something we embrace. As Americans move from the farm to factory jobs, it's something that can be eaten quick, on the go. It's a food that came to matter to Americans at just the time they needed it.

ELLIOTT: And everybody seems to think that the very best burger is in their little town.

Mr. EDGE: Yeah, and that's what's so beautiful about this. There's--I'll defer to Calvin Trillin in--as I should--in "All Things Gastronomic & Literary."(ph) Trillin once wrote, and I'm paraphrasing, `Anyone who doesn't think their home town hamburger is the best is a sissy.' And there's this pride of place in that, you know, if you asked where to find the best slab of fragrois in America, there may be 20 contenders. If you ask where to find the best hamburger in America, there are hundreds of contenders and hundreds of people who wish to tell the story, hold their hamburger high and say `This is mine. This is my place. These are my people. This is my burger.'

ELLIOTT: One of the most popular ways to embellish a burger, at least from some of the recipes in your book, was the onions.

Mr. EDGE: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: And last night I tried your recipe for onion entangled griddle burger where you took the really thinly shaved onions and you smashed them on top of the raw paddy and then you flipped it over and let them get all carmelized before you put cheese on it and put it on your bun with only mustard. And it was really quite god.

Mr. EDGE: Now we're talking about a very thin burger. I mean, when you were working on that burger you cooked last night, Debbie, you were pushing down hard, carmelizing that meat on the flat-top. It wasn't anything about medium-rare, right?

ELLIOTT: No. I smashed it out to where it really wasn't even round. The edges kind of cracked.

Mr. EDGE: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Where'd you find that one?

Mr. EDGE: I found that in a little town called El Reno, Oklahoma. In El Reno there are four or five spots that sell this style of burger. And to enter one of these restaurants is to enter, you know, this cloud of onion smoke and grease. And it's a pleasant place to be.

ELLIOTT: Now you have a whole chapter about extended burgers, the way that people use onions or soy meal or whatever to sort of add to the ground beef. My grandfather always used cracker meal.

Mr. EDGE: This is a response to tough times. You know, the kind of burger you're describing is a frugal burger, and I see it mostly in an area not far from where I live here in Oxford in northeastern Mississippi, in around the towns of Corinth and Booneville. In those towns, in most cases, when you ask for a hamburger, what you're going to get is an extended burger like this. It may be cut with soy. In other cases, they make kind of a slurry that is burger meat, flour and water and they cook them like pancakes. And they call those dough burgers.

ELLIOTT: That just doesn't sound good to me. What does that taste like?

Mr. EDGE: To be frank, I didn't like them either. I didn't like them at all. But how dare I criticize them when the people of Booneville, Mississippi, love them. You know, if you've moved away from Booneville and you're coming back home, you want a dough burger. And that's why when people ask me, you know, what's the best burger you had, it's kind of a moot point and I try to dodge that question as best I can. The...

ELLIOTT: Well, that's my next question.

Mr. EDGE: I knew it would be. I was trying to cut you...

ELLIOTT: What is your favorite burger?

Mr. EDGE: So I'm still not going to be able to avoid this question is what you're saying?

ELLIOTT: No. You can't write a book called "Hamburgers & Fries" and not tell me what your favorite hamburger is.

Mr. EDGE: I really thought I had this plotted out well.

ELLIOTT: Forget it.

Mr. EDGE: If forced--and it sounds as if I'm being forced...

ELLIOTT: You are.

Mr. EDGE: ...I would say that my favorite is the pimento cheeseburger. The epicenter of this particular burger camp is Columbia, South Carolina. So you take a flat burger and you slather the bun with pimento cheese, which for those of you who do not know it, is nothing more than a mixture of shredded cheese, mayonnaise, pimento peppers. I like a little bit of sage in mine, a little bit of salt, a little bit of pepper, maybe some green onions. And you put the cold cheese on the hot meat and it begins to melt and you get these little swirls and eddies atop the burger as the cheese starts to melt and kind of turns into something kind of gooey and really luscious. And to bite into that as the cheese goes squirting out the other end of the bun is one of the great pleasures.

And I like it also because of the lazy man's appeal, which is you keep the pimento cheese in your refrigerator and you don't have to reach for all these different condiments. You've got one thing to slather on your burger, plant the top bun and you're done.

ELLIOTT: Now I want to talk a little bit about condiments. You call for all different kinds of condiments. There's mayonnaise, mustard, salsa verde, even Cheez Whiz. But I don't see ketchup.

Mr. EDGE: I'm not a fan of ketchup. I think it's too sweet. Way too sweet.

ELLIOTT: Now I understand that Louie's Lunch, in New Haven, which you mentioned as one of the places where they claim to be the original burger, they don't even allow ketchup in the building.

Mr. EDGE: I love those people. I embrace the ideals of Louie's Lunch and encourage other people to do the same.

ELLIOTT: John T. Edge is the author of "Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story." He's also the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss. Thanks, John T. We'll be talking to you soon.

Mr. EDGE: Looking forward to it.

ELLIOTT: Recipes, pictures and more from tonight's show on our Web site, npr.org.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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