Tuesday, February 10, 2009

BURGERS

There's a wonderful article on Slugburgers by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Mississippi's famous writer of articles-on-all-things-both-arcane-and-interesting. I read it several years ago, and it featured sounds, sights, smells, tastes, reactions and aftereffects of her first and only exposure to Corinth's most famous culinary creation. I had hoped to find her archives somewhere online, but the only site wants to sell me a book from e-Bay.

Oh, well, trust me, it was a lovely bit of writing, bringing to life every greasy, salty, mustard-clad bite. You could almost hear her arteries begin to harden.

My raisin' was in the Delta, and we had never heard of the "hill" folks' delicacy, though our local Milk Bar---guess we were too rural for a complete "Dairy" title--sold something similar. The little one-room building, whitewashed all around, had so many items and prices printed backward in white shoe polish on the INSIDE of the windows that you could barely see the workers within. You walked up to the little screen-flap window, picked your poison from the long list of cholesterol, paid your money, and promptly had the screen slammed down as the cashier turned to yell your order at the frycook standing two feet away.

The refrigerator door was opened to reveal several tall stacks of half-inch pink checkers, each separated by a small square of tornoff waxed paper. Heaven knows WHAT was massaged into that “ground beef” before the final patties were formed---last week’s unused buns, all crumbled into one last effort of use-it-up economy, or the lingering heels of every employee’s loaf of Wonder at home, brought in to stretch the “bought stuff” into more than it was. It coulda been oatmeal or even grits---we didn’t care.

One of these pink coins was grabbed by the paper and slapped upside down on the grill. The hot, dusty parking-lot air began to fill with the tongue-aching scent of sizzling meat as the cook threw two bun halves into the grease deposited by decades of burgers. And the not-quite-mixed bread-and-meat goo began to cook at different rates, different reactions of sizzle, so that each bite of the burger might offer a different taste and texture.

I remember the soft center section, the part that would’ve been rare had the patty not been so thin and the grill-cook not so watchful---that part was unctuously creamy with moist meat and soggy bread. And it was tempting to eat all way round the circle first, to get the mouthfuls of the crisp edges with their crunchy taste of meaty, grease-crisped croutons, or the almost country-fried-steak effect of all that bread mixed in and sizzled on the flat-top.


It never mattered to the cook if you got two tops or two bottoms, bun was bun; you didn't care either---you just wanted that sizzling and frying and mustard-smearing to be done, with a nice slice of onion and a coupla rings of salty dills slapped on. The meat, by this time, had been spatula-smashed with all the weight of Miss Ella's muscular right arm, flowering into a bun-sized, thin circle with crisp, lacy edges. Greasy spatula saluted top of bun, the lot went into a crisp crackle of waxy paper with the fancy pinked edges, and you received your prize, seizing it to your bosom like a holy relic.

You backed away, averting your eyes from the waiting hordes, lest they lose control and wrest your long-awaited treasure from you. A clink of coins into the machine around the corner, the sissssssss of an ice-filled Pepsi bottle, and you retreated to the grimy picnic tables in the shade of the back lot, sinking onto that splintery bench like returning from battle. Rustle of paper, scent of onion-mustard-meat approaching your lips, then Heaven.


As I said, I've never tasted anything called a Slugburger, but I remember those filler-filled burgers of my youth with great pleasure, and with regret for the young of it, the bright-eyed lusty joy with which we wolfed down whatever was put in front of us, the uncaringness of the days before cholesterol and triglycerides were invented. That Milk Bar owner built house after house, renting them to many families, and she built them one burger at a time.

Slugburgers: No. The most memorable sandwiches of our lives: Oh, yes.

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