I enjoy a hamburger as much as the next man. Unless that man is J. Wellington Wimpy or any of the greedy, greasy Londoners you see on a Friday night standing in line on Margaret Street for a Meat Liquor fix or congregating in Brixton Market for a thirteen-quid Honest Burger. The hamburger isn’t a new food fad but it has erupted in popularity this year. Such ravening adoration for the beef pattie appears to be at an all-time high in the UK as new fast-food outlets bootleg the idea from across the pond of quality but pricier junk foods. I enjoy a hamburger as much as the next man, but you’ll never catch me following the apolaustic behaviour of these piggish burger masturbators.
Ah, well, here comes something unexpected: my own, self-referential burger appraisal. I know, I said that I wouldn’t, but I have. Although, my pattie monograph is born from the home of the hamburger, and not London. And I am going to continue with it because now is the correct time, seeing as everyone else in the food media appears to be waxing lyrical about burgers and furiously masturbating over meat patties as if they only appeared on menus yesterday.
Now, I will only say this once, so lean in (whispers): I may have joined the Brotherhood of the Burger
This army of so-called foodie scribblers and bloggers in London take the gold star for the most agitated, garrulous meaty-masturbaters, ranking and wanking over each offering as if anyone cares. Yeah, yeah, the irony isn’t wasted on me. And metaphorically masturbating, I mean. Although, I bet it’s only a matter of time before we see that on restaurant menus. And you know what, the foodie blogger glitterati will lap it up, they’ll write lists and take selfies and will fill their social media with ejaculate-encrusted burgers and gloopy, drippy fries; not because they want to or because of any nutrient benefits, but because that’s what everyone else is doing, and they’re all lost sheep scrambling to be relevant.
So this burger appraisal: I was in Kansas City, the Missouri side, at Town-Topic. Now, I will only say this once, so lean in (whispers): I may have joined the Brotherhood of the Burger. Yep, this is a coming out, really, not an essay or review or fast-food composition, but I was with my photographer friend Jodi and we were hungry in the Midwest, where the hamburger first gained national recognition. And I can’t think of anything more wholly American, born out of the coming of the motorcar and the highway; a symbol of the open road; of journeys, adventures, new destinations; new beginnings and a New Deal, the opportunity for change and new juicy choice, than the hamburger. It is wholesomely representative, defining a nation, existing concurrently with another American craze: obesity. The two are mutually exclusive.
It was during 1904’s St. Louis World’s Fair when the New York Tribune namelessly attributed the hamburger as, “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike.” Texas state legislator Betty Brown introduced a bill to codify the claim that “Fletch” Davis, a Texas grill-man, created the burger and introduced it to the world at the 1904 fair. Opinions about the origins continue to differ, however. Another story, according to Louis’ Lunch website (a diner in New Haven, Connecticut) goes, “One day in the year 1900, a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment’s owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread, so the story goes, with America’s first hamburger.” Whatever the truth, it is now 108 years later, and the hamburger is a US staple, as American as obesity, Mickey Mouse and high school shootings. For it cannot be denied, they (America) and increasingly we (a gradually fatter Britain) live in a burger-encapsulated world.
When Claude Sparks opened Town-Topic, a small, understated diner in downtown Kansas City, Missouri in 1937, he was depending on the insatiable appetite of hungry Midwesterners and sold hamburgers for five cents each. It is rumoured that at the end of his first day flogging patties to greedy Missourians, he pocketed $21.00, a significant wallop of burger-wonga back then. Seventy-five years later, Claude’s son Gary Lee continues the patty flipping trade having taken the reins in 1966 and ensuring that Town-Topic remains dedicated to its steadfast burger output. It offers single, double, and triple hamburgers, alongside a ½ lb. for fat bastards who can’t get their carnivorous kicks from a triple. But no American has ever ordered just a single patty. That is not a theory, it is a fact.
Toppings are kept simple; the kind of ingredients hamburgers should include. Why make something more complicated than it needs to be? There are cheese slices, the processed rubber type, with crunchy-washed lettuce, juicy sliced tomatoes, and strands of sweet onion, along with the right offering of fast-food appropriate condiments – ketchup and mustard; you don’t need anything else in your burger. Hold the mayo and the ranch dressing and forget any ideas you might have of pickle brine. Oh, and you can shove that chilli sauce up your burger bun! I love prickly heat but not on my burger. Thankfully, what there is not, is what those tasteless, brainless nincompoop customers at the recently opened Patty & Bun in Marylebone ask for, the ad infinitum of unnecessary overabundance and the likes of pineapple, green peppers, ale-marinated shallots, wet pickles, and poncy cheeses no one has ever heard of from a small village in Lourdes. You will not find any of that at Town-Topic, oh no siree.
The remainder of the menu boasts an array of vintage American diner fulfilments, such as patty melt on rye, hot dogs, chilli dogs and breaded pork tenderloin. There are bowls of handmade chilli and sides of French fries (are Americans still calling them that, or did they decide to stick with the re-dubbing Freedom fries?), onion rings and tater tots, those crisp, bite-size morsels I tried to escape at school. A blackboard is graffitied with colourful chalk listing the day’s merry-go-round of pies. They are the archetypical American pastry creations (hot or cold): Apple, Banana, Coconut, Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Cherry, Lemon, Butterscotch, Pineapple, Key lime, and Pecan. And, while no one with a mouth would ever rhapsodise over America’s culinary output, credit where it’s due, they do produce a darn good pie.
The breakfast list is also extensive with the kind of sickly stomach-twisters Americans are so good at producing and seemingly so accepting of paying the increased waistband price for. There are cinnamon rolls with heated butter for $2.25 and toast & jelly for just $1.50. It is so cheap that you might as well order it twice, or thrice. And I like how they list the butter as ‘heated’ as it suggests that it is melted and portable, as if it comes as a side portion in a little ceramic pouring mug, like honey or treacle with your pancakes. Tragically, I was too full to find out. Other traditional breakfast-benders include The Truck Shop Omelette (four eggs, hash-browns, meat – not specified, but I would guess a beef – and cheese, all scrambled), The Broadway (three types of meat: bacon, sausage and ham, with extra cheese) and Westside (a cheese and onion omelette with chilli sauce).
My triple cheeseburger cost a very reasonable $5.95 and had all the elements you would expect from a celebrated burger institution. Nothing is too complicated or overworked. The spongy bun was steamed to soften the bread before adding the three patty wedges. Yep, three. This is ‘Merica! It was front-heavy, with the broken-down bouquet of boiled bovine and greasy-grill all squashed and oozing between the buns. As I pressed down, the slices of cheese began to melt and bind, seeping out from the sides. Thinly sliced strands of onions bound themselves between meat and hot, melted cheese. Eating this burger became a very private thing. A side of onion rings for $2.95 arrived piled high, their deep-fried crispy coating protecting that fleshy onion band within. The coating was piping hot, the onion inside soft and sweet. Together they cost less than 10 dollars. That is Midwest robbery, the greatest this state has seen since the Jesse James Gang committed their first bank robbery, on Valentine’s Day in 1866, just a few miles from here.
Famous American beverages are available: Coca-Cola, Pepsi (once upon a time Pepsi-Cola), Cherry Coke, Root Beer, malts and refreshing iced teas, but I felt the need on that particular day to wash my burger down with a glass of cold milk, which cost a dollar. I don’t know why but at that moment it felt like the most appropriate companion for my burger. There is something homely about knocking back a glass of cold milk, something nostalgic, a return to childhood and a flashback to milk and cookies before bedtime. And anyway, I find Cola and any sugar-heavy carbonated drink masks the flavours of the food, and I want to taste my protein, my beef, all of the fat merging and melting and becoming one with the pressed cheese, lettuce, onions and tomato. I am starting to sound like them, aren’t I, the apolaustic, piggish meat masturbators? Nooooo…
As I was finishing up my homage to the place everyone in Kansas City told me I would find the best burger, a group of teenagers slumbered in, plonked themselves on the swivel counter stools and ordered 14 double cheeseburgers, eight Cherry Cokes, two Root Beers, four slices of pecan pie and a slice of key lime. Where else in the world would you hear such a ridiculous order? Here were teenagers bonding over the great American pastime of ground beef patties with Cherry Coke and a side slice of pie. God bless you, America. You might be the fattest country in the world and still expanding, but you are proudly so, and who in their right mind would pass on such an American pastime as eating a hamburger and a slice of pie? My name is David Constable, and I am a burger wanker. C
Town-Topic, 2021 Broadway Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri 64108, USA