The humble burger gladly bears the various tastes of its individual eaters. And its heart and soul as a beef-on-a-bun creation never falters, never lets us down. By Duncan Murrell.
One early April night in 2008, I stood in a small cabin outside Todd, in Ashe County, listening to the Tar Heels play Kansas in the Final Four. I stood, because the old radio sat high on a shelf and I needed to hold my hand somewhere near its antenna to increase the chance that a stray radio signal might find us, after winding its way over ridge, through valley, and past Meat Camp Road. The cabin was cold, the air was cold, everything was cold. There had been some snow flurries that day, outside the window the laurels along the stream stiffened and cracked, and we lost the game. I walked out the door into the dark and lit a fire in the grill. I had been alone for weeks.
In North Carolina, I have eaten hamburgers on at least three beaches and two mountains, in four cities and in three athletic arenas. I once ate a burger while sitting on the bumper of my VW pulled over to the side of the road in the Sandhills, counting the purple martin gourds swinging in the fields. I ate a hamburger in Balsam on the way to ask my girlfriend to marry me, and I ate a hamburger in Durham the day our first daughter was born. I have eaten burgers while watching illegal fireworks arc over Surf City. I carried a cold burger in my pocket while driving to work around fallen trees after Hurricane Fran, and after Hurricane Floyd, I ate a burger in Tarboro after mucking out houses in Princeville.
I remember these burgers because I remember those days and those places. They have become part of my psychogeography, a portable archive of maps and pictures and food wrappers that I keep in my little head to describe this place where I’ve chosen to live and to guide me to finding the pieces if I ever had to reconstruct it all, my life in North Carolina, from memory.
I remember lighting the grill after the basketball game, and the next thing I remember I am sitting halfway up the mountain on a rock, looking down the valley through a corduroyed field of dormant blackberries, and thinking, “We’ll win next year.” My new career as a backwoods oracle seemed improbably bright. I bit off a great warm hunk of the mustard-cheese-slaw-chili burger I’d carried with me on a paper plate tented with foil.
Miracle of miracles, we won it all the next year, the whole basketball tournament. If I were a superstitious man, or one prone to the conflation of coincidence and destiny, I would now eat a burger every time the Heels play. I would go buy the very same Food Lion coleslaw, Bush’s chili, and French’s mustard. I would haul myself up that mountain and make my burger sacrifice to the gods. I would track down Roy Williams and hold him down and make him eat one. “Dagummit and jiminy christmas, Roy, open up, it’s good for you; you’re wound too tight.” I’d paint the burger blue and lead it to half-court on a leash. I’d make it sing the national anthem and sign a few T-shirts. The burger would be a star.
I am not that kind of person. A hamburger is ground beef and fat, cooked and served on a bun. Hamburgers did not save my life, they don’t tell me who I am, they don’t network me, they are not a hedge against market volatility, they aren’t high in fiber or antioxidants, they do not and they did not protect my basketball team. The hamburgers I’ve known don’t cure any disease but hunger. I don’t require that my burgers come freighted with their own meanings and separate histories. I don’t need my burger to illustrate, or frame, or illuminate, or explain anything other than itself. I only need it to be hot.
In North Carolina, it’s acceptable to add to a hamburger whatever’s left in the refrigerator, the slaw and the chili and the cheese and the onion, all those food groups. Pile them up — it’ll hold. The emendations don’t change the nature of the burger itself, which is meat and fire. It would be absurd to argue over how to cook a burger, or what to put on it.
Did you make your own hickory coals for that burger? Oh, you’re from that place where everyone puts mustard on the bun? Mustardton? Well, I’m from Ketchupville, and we don’t do it like that. Sane people don’t talk this way about hamburgers. People who fight over the method of radically altering the taste of their favorite food are people who should admit that what they really like is sauce.
Hamburgers are blanks, hamburgers are whatever you want them to be, and that’s the point of a burger. The hamburger opens up onto the world, it unfolds possibility. It pulls off the trick of never abandoning its basic meatness, while adjusting to the hamburglar’s urge to create. One could never say the same about barbecue, about which we enforce certain tests of authenticity because — and I’m only suggesting this as one of several possibilities — we’re unsure about pork. The pig is too much like us in its cunning and omnivorousness. The pig lives in the gaps of our lives and settlements, patrolling our edges. The pig trotted alongside our wagons as we crossed the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and mountains. It is not enough to cook a pig; it must be transformed, and so we purify it in smoke and anoint its flesh with our vinegars.
Bacon is, of course, the important exception to this rule, and fits nicely on a hamburger.
The hamburger is an end in itself, a culmination. One cannot change it in any meaningful way and also claim to be improving it. It may only be adorned. Beef laced with foie gras and truffles is to hamburgers what carbonation was to patent medicines: something to bait the suckers. The coleslaw and the chili go on the burger not as improvements, but as tribute to the god Carnis, who flamed ground beef on a fire and slid it onto a loaf of manna. He called it good, and better medium rare.
Hamburgers don’t require much planning. They are the food of a conditional existence, the thing you eat when you’re at Ocean Isle and not wanting to go up over the bridge to the IGA for some food to cook, when all you want to think about is where the high tide line is, how you managed to set your beach chair right at that line, right in the perfect zone between water and desert, how great it is that they invented cup holders, and how you wish you had a golf cart to ride. That creature, that liminal sun priest, he’s kin to the woman floating down the Haw River in an inner tube she found just that morning in the old milking shed, and he’s brother to the man up the side of the mountain dreaming about his basketball team.
These are the people for whom hamburgers were invented. They don’t plan for the hamburger; the hamburger just happens. Fire, bun, ground beef. It’s perfect, as if fire were created for that very purpose. The meat doesn’t need anything else, but it will bear the great weight of whatever we’re in the mood for right now. I’ve seen eggs and avocados on a burger. You have it your way because you deserve a break today, say howdy to our burgers at Roy Rogers. We don’t say howdy to our turkey wraps. We are not asked how we like our chicken nuggets cooked. But the hamburger wants us to say what we want it to be. It demands nothing, and so we become fond of it. If I weren’t ethically opposed to food anthropomorphism, I’d say the hamburger is a good listener.
I remember many of the burgers I’ve eaten but not because any one of them sticks out in my mind as having been particularly great. The important thing about a burger is that it’s always there; it shows up for the important moments in my life. When I need one, I can find one. The essential thing about a burger is its ubiquity.
I do not believe that there is a way of eating a hamburger unique to North Carolina. Some people call a cheeseburger with mustard, slaw, chili, and onions a Carolina Burger, but most scholars (me) agree that slaw and chili added to meat is just a tendency, a kind of Carolinian philosophy: Be it resolved that sides are even better if eaten on a bun. The meat in the Carolina Burger is merely a corollary to the condimentary principle.
The very idea of a regional hamburger tradition is anathema to the basic purpose of the hamburger, which is to be a universal food available and familiar everywhere. The hamburger first appeared a little more than a hundred years ago, when American restaurateurs first began putting ground beef on a bun, the bun being the essential innovation that made the food portable. This detail is nearly the only fact of burger history that’s universally accepted. But where was it invented? Perhaps it was Seymour, Wisconsin, in 1885, or New Haven, Connecticut, in 1895, or possibly at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904. The only thing that’s clear about the invention of the hamburger is that its historical circumstances are indecipherable and, fundamentally, beside the point.
Billy Ingram, in 1916, realized that he could build the first fast-food chain with the White Castle burger and its system of cooking pioneered in Wichita, Kansas. The hamburger was simple, something that could be standardized, and also something open to infinite variation. The subsequent stories of McDonald’s, Big Boy, Burger King, Hardee’s, Gino’s, Roy Rogers, and Wendy’s are all variations on the theme of standardization and replication. The fast-food hamburger, like the cigarette, represents the near-perfect triumph of marketing. The memorable thing about a burger is almost never the burger itself.
What is it we remember when we remember a hamburger? We remember what we were doing and where we were, and how it felt to be alive, right then. If that’s a happy memory, it’s a good burger. Simple enough in theory.
At Chris’s Drive-In in Siler City, the thing to do is to order the Rollie Burger with slaw, chili, onions, and mustard. I don’t know who or what Rollie is, but the word has apparently come to mean a giant burger served in a red basket with crinkle-cut fries in a booth abutting a wall covered in paneling with images of Elvis Presley etched into the surface. It’s the real thing, the tribute of a fan.
At lunch, the place fills up with contractors in their coveralls, sheriff’s deputies, clerks, grandparents, and one writer. In one of the booths, Grandma and Grandpa sit with their grandson, a tyke who nodded off after eating half a Rollie Burger. One of the contractors, whose dirty coveralls say he did a lot of work in crawlspaces, goes over to say hello.
“This is A’s boy.”
“Got him a burger, did he?” He bends over to peer in the child’s face, as if he might find traces of it still. Routine burger forensics.
“I think I was about that age when I come in here the first time.” And when he says the words first time, the bald man straightens up and nods his head, as if he remembers it all, seeing it as if it were happening right at that moment, as if he could look down on himself sleeping off his burger and know he’d be able to come back again as often as he wanted. Then off he goes out into the dirt parking lot, into the Ford with the PVC pipes stacked up in the back, and drives off.
That’s all you need to know about a Carolina burger right there.
1329 North Second Avenue
Siler City, N.C. 27344
Hours: Monday-Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; and Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Duncan Murrell is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and The Normal School. His work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Oxford American, and Southern Cultures. He also teaches writing at Duke University and North Carolina State University. He lives in Pittsboro.