We’re out in the middle of nowhere. You know, and the good thing about it is, we are the only thing in nowhere.
So says Joe Maranto the owner of the Meers Store and Restaurant, home of the Texas Long Horn Beef Burger. Location: Meers, Oklahoma – population six people, eight cats, and a dog.
Well I found out about the Meers store in a documentary film called Hamburger America. This film tells the story of eight deliciously unique hamburger emporiums. Some are small, some are bigger, they’ve all been around for a while, and almost all are described as ‘world famous’. As they say at the Meers store – Eat Beef, the west wasn’t won on salad.
We’ll come back to Meers shortly. So it has been my tradition to do a post on art for the July 4th, and Thanksgiving Day holidays. But what could be more traditional than a July 4th cookout. So here we go with a look at one of the American food items most often consumed on this the July 4th weekend. Whether you are cooking burgers outdoors on a charcoal grill, or flippin’ burgers on an electric grill, or if you prefer them fried in a cast-iron pan, it seems obvious that you must really love just plain wolfing them down. The hamburger is an American tradition and is as popular today as ever and that’s taking in to account the recent rise in the cost of beef.
Hamburger American is filmed, directed, and edited by George Motz. I can’t say with certainty, but it is likely that Motz was influenced by TV Journalist Charles Kuralt, who in 1967, convinced his bosses at CBS News to let him get out of the studio, and travel across America finding stories. Kuralt claimed he was tired of the grind and the competitive nature of TV Broadcasting’s version of the news. They said okay – we’ll give it a go for three months.
The title of the series was On The Road With Charles Kuralt, and it ran for 20 years.
In Motz’s film – we visit eight different hamburger restaurants across the country. The segments are about the making of the burgers, some of them in ways you wouldn’t or couldn’t ever imagine, but the real focus of the film is the story of these establishments, some of which predate me, you, our parents, and even our grandparents. And per the film, some of these establishment’s long-time clientele are certainly old enough to be our grandparents.
So off we go to visit these hamburger emporiums. We’ll sample the burgers only visually of course, but it is interesting watching the owners of these places talk about their burgers and their restaurants which have become their life’s work. First stop: Memphis, Tennessee – where you can find Graceland, the home Elvis A. Presley, and on Beale Street, you will find Dyers World Famous Hamburgers. They proclaim that their burgers, which are deep-fried in 102 year old grease, are the best burgers anywhere. Dyers began in 1912, and the present owner… … Tom Robertson says the grease is processed and strained daily, but they’ve never thrown it out and started over, so somewhere in there, are molecules from 1912. Robertson said, I won’t reveal the ingredients with which they season the grease, but if your grease isn’t from 1912, it won’t matter anyway. Have you had your Vitamin G today, with G standing for grease?
He said on an average day, they sell anywhere from 300 to 500 burgers. As Robertson says – It’s all about the grease. If you’re watching your health at all, I’d recommend that you go next door.
Next stop is Meriden, CT – the World Famous Ted’s Restaurant, established in 1959. In the words of owner Paul Duberek, We serve steamed cheeseburgers. In grilling you sear the meat, and it retains the moisture and the fat which is sealed in the burger. With steamed, it is claimed to be far healthier as the fat is drained and collected. Paul says the cheese is secret, then confides that it is a cheddar. But that’s as far as I’ll go he says. Duberek points out that there are other burger places in the areas, but his place is the only one that sells maybe 10 hot dogs a week, along with 800 cheeseburgers. Paul says, I’ve been cooking steamed burgers since 1972 – It’s what I do. From there, we head out to Sedalia, Missouri. The Wheel In Drive In is the home of the Guber Burger. That’s right – a grilled burger with melted peanut butter on it. John Brandkamp tells us We use a case of peanut butter a week in the summer time, a little less in the winter. We have Peanut Butter Shakes too. The restaurant began in 1948. Brandkamp started working there in 1960, and worked his way up. He’s the third owner of the place. As he says, I’ve been here 43 years all together. It’s a job. You’ve got to work somewhere. It’s fairly large place with a big horseshoe counter as well as the drive in feature where they hang the tray on your car window. One proud customer says, I retired 17 years ago, and I come here about three times a day. I have a Guber Burger, I figure I’ve eaten about 10,000 of ’em. Brandkamp says he uses ground chuck delivered fresh twice a week – on Mondays and Thursdays. The place has been in business 53 years. That’s a lot of peanut butter. Another lady customer said that she and her husband came there when they were dating – about 38 years ago. Now that’s customer loyalty. [Editorial Note] – In late 2013, the Wheel In Drive In closed after 65 years of business and 10 years after the Motz film was made. Just outside of Milwaukee, in a town called, Glendale, Wisconsin, we have Solly’s Grille – established 1936. Glen Fieber says, This is Solly’s and we sell the world-famous Butter Burger. I’m not kidding folks, When I saw the amount of butter dolloped onto a bun, for one single burger, I had to rewind and have a second look. Fieber says he used ground sirloin, and on an average day, they sell 250 to 400 burgers. On a Saturday, we could reach 500. He uses Wisconsin butter, and only Wisconsin butter. He says they go through 125 to 150 pounds of butter a week.
One customer says he’s been coming to Solly’s Grille since he was 13, and that’s about 50 years ago. Gert the cook has been working there 32 years. Waitresses stay 18-20 years. Business is good in Wisconsin. As a matter of fact, the owner told about a particular December 12th. The restaurant had been closed for six months for a relocation. The entire building was lifted and moved about 100 feet and that took six months to do. Well folks hadn’t had the butter burger in a long while. At the re-opening, on that December 12th, there was a 12 inch snow storm and people were lined up around the counters, out the door, past the porch and around the block. As I said business is good at Solly’s.
That brings us back to Meers, OK and the Texas Long Horn Burger. Maranto says they like to cook ’em one way. A half-pound patty on a seven-inch bun. They’re served with mustard, tomatoes, pickles, green lettuce, and red onion. If you want a burger with Mayo – it’s on the menu and is called a Sissy Burger. If you want a burger with ketchup, that would be the Yankee Burger. ‘We believe ketchup belongs on the fries’, says Maranto. He claims his Long Horn beef – he not only makes and serves the burgers, he raised the cattle as well – has lower cholesterol than chicken or turkey.
Maranto says, My customers come in hungry and they leave feeling full. Really. Have a look at his burgers. I’ve seen stacks of pancakes way smaller than his burgers. Yee-haw! The Bobcat Bite Restaurant is located in Sante Fe, New Mexico. They’re known for their Green Chillies Cheeseburger. I can’t say that I’ve ever had one those. Can’t say I’ve been to New Mexico either. But that’s just me. The place is owned and run by John and Bonnie Eckre. Now John tells us that green chillies are indigenous to New Mexico, and are essential to New Mexico. He says Green chillies are hot, and when they fall onto your tongue, they cause a bit of pain, so the brain sends some endormorphs to the area, it is the body’s natural opiate. You get a rush, and it’s kind of subtle, but it’s a real rush. Bonnie says they go through about 80 pounds of green chilies a week. The restaurant has been open since 1953, and got its name because bobcats and wolves used to come down from the hills to eat the scraps that were tossed out in the evening. John buys chuck shoulder and cuts and grinds his own burgers. Each one is just about 9.5 ounces, and that’s plenty big enough for any one. [Editorial Note ] – The Bobcat Bite has moved to a new location , still in Sante Fe, and is now called Sante Fe Bite. New Haven, Connecticut is the home of Yale University. Only slightly less famous is the burger joint known as Louie’s Lunch. It has been open since 1895. They invented in the steak sandwich and were the first restaurant in the USA to serve hamburgers. To give you an idea about this place and Yale University – The Yale University Bulldogs football fight song, called Boola, Boola was written by Alan Hirsch in 1901 making the song younger than Louie’s Lunch. The secret of Louie’s are the stoves which were built in 1898 and are still in operation today. The burgers cook vertically with the flames on either side.
The place is run by Ken and Lee Lassen. Ken talks about his grandfather inventing both the hamburger and the steak sandwich in the year 1900. Lee says she married Ken in 1951, and right after that, she started working at Louie’s. She took some time out to have some kids, and soon as they were old enough to wash dishes, sweep the floor, and peel onions they came to work too. Ken said they season the beef with salt and pepper and TLC. The meat contains only about 5 to 8% fat. Rather than buns, they use white bread toast just as they did in 1900. In an intriguing aside, Lee Lassen said she hasn’t had a burger any place else other than Louie’s in 53 years. They don’t use ketchup on the burger … and in fact they have a sign that illustrates that ketchup is barred – don’t ask. This is a place that is all about tradition and pride. The last place visited in this film is the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago. Established in 1934, the Billy Goat is famous. In the 1945 Baseball World Series – the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, Sam A. Sianis tried to go the game, and he brought the actual goat with him. He had two tickets, one for him and one for the goat. They wouldn’t let the goat into the ball park, claiming that the goat stank. Well the Cubs lostthe game and the series, and since then they’ve never returned to the World Series. Mr. Sianis sent a telegram to Mr. Wrigley, the owner of the Cubs at the time. The telegram read – Who Stinks now? Hence the Billy Goat Hex.
The other thing is more recent. The famous Saturday Night Live skit from 1978 – cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger – no coke – pepsi was a tribute to the Billy Goat Tavern, which is now located on Lower Michigan Avenue.
So folks, before you have your next burger at a restaurant, or cook one yourself, check out this movie, or read the book. And if any of you across American have tried any of these places, kindly let us know how the experience was. Thanks.Happy July 4th, and keep on grilling.