Essays: The Best Burger in the World

August 30, 2013

We're giving you essays about food, written by the Food52 community, to read over your morning coffee. Want to share your story? Send it to us at [email protected].

Today: Just in time for Labor Day, Tom Hirschfeld remembers the burgers of his youth.

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The sacks on the table, dotted with spots of grease and limp from French fry steam, are from Burger Chef. I have a plain cheeseburger. It is the first burger I remember eating. I eat them with glee and in anticipation of the next time my father would pile us into the back of the metallic green Plymouth Fury and drive us the short distance to the shopping center to pick up dinner from the shiny new burger spot.

Shortly thereafter, we packed up and moved to the country. Everything changed. That's not to say we didn't get to eat at burger joints anymore -- we just didn't get to eat at them as often. We didn't eat at Burger Chef all the time to begin with, but at the new house there were no eateries close by.

At our new home, the height of my formative years, if we ate burgers, it was from the grill on our porch. The burger meal was best on the weekends when we came off the boat after a long day on the lake waterskiing, tubing, and swimming. We were wet, sunburned, and wrapped in beach towels. As we walked up the hill from the water, fresh-cut blades of grass stuck to our damp feet and, at the top, we sat down to the table on the back porch deck with wet hair and water-freckled arms. A pot of long-cooked green beans speckled with bacon, a plate piled high with boiled corn on the cob begging for butter, thick slabs of sliced Early Girl tomatoes, and a stack of juicy burgers hot off the charcoal grill waited for us, courtesy of my mother.

At the table we built our own burgers. Mine was always the same, 1 1/2 slices of American cheese, mayo, thickly spooned onto the top bun, Boston lettuce, and two thick slices of homegrown tomato. By the time I got close to finishing the sandwich, the soft Kaiser roll was soaked with tomato and beef juices, making the last sloppy bites the best -- napkin mandatory.

But when you leave home, you stretch your wings, or at least I did, and you experience the world without the watchful eyes of your parents. You do things you shouldn't and you do things you should. But I figured I'd get it out of my system, experience as many possibilities as I could. I won't settle on any one thing until I have none left to try:

The Hinkle Burger: Caramelized onions smashed into the patty which is griddled on a big steel flat top. Double cheese means two slices on a single patty, not two patties. College. My first true love. The burger, fries, and blueberry milkshake is a hard memory to run from.

White Castle: A plate of sliders, double cheese with extra pickle. The break-up girlfriend. A friend with benefits.

And then there is the fall I spent in Austin as a newspaper intern. The jalapeƱo burger, the schnitzel burger, the Tex-Mex burger, the BBQ bacon burger, the Cordon Bleu burger, and the breakfast burger. Incorrigible. Notches on the burger bed post.

The Wheel-In Diner. Post graduation. A goober burger. Peanut butter slathered on a bun, a burger, and your choice of toppings. Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

The Corner Bistro. Dream big. The big city cheddar burger. Served on a toasted English muffin. As close to a corner office as I want to get.

The stuffed blue cheese burger, mushroom and Swiss, bacon California Reuben pizza Cajun 1/2 pounder Swedish meatball foie gras wagyu ... and ground short rib burger. All delicious but nothing more than meaningless hotel rooms on an endless road trip because in the end, you discover, there is nothing like the comfort of home.

We want to hear from you: What burgers are you most nostalgic about?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bigjim
  • Eric Warren
    Eric Warren
  • Florence Marrow
    Florence Marrow
  • steelbill
  • Johnny Ringo
    Johnny Ringo
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Bigjim May 2, 2014
Oh man! my first job (at 15 was at Burger Chef in Waukegan, IL. Buck an hour. Bags of potatoes that we peeled, cut into fries, washed three times before double duty in the frier. Dunk those babies in a chocolate shake and you are in heaven. Tarter sauce for the fish sndwiches made on site. Makes today's factory fast food places just can't compare. But what can from 1963?
James S. February 15, 2015
in June , 1971 I arrived at the Navy' School Command at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Waukegan. I would be training for the next 4 months to be a Radarman.....my roommates and I loved going to Burger Chef and also a bar called The Talk of the Town around the corner and up the street from the Burger Chef.....good memories... I was 21 at the time........
Eric W. May 1, 2014
Steelbill, your mother and mine must have been Sisters! I remember that Lawry's Seasoned Salt flavor along with those buns being toasted in butter in that cast iron skillet! That cheese burger sat beside french fries and baked beans and don't forget that big glass of Kool-Aid! Blessings!
Florence M. May 1, 2014
Deacon Henry, We called him Deek and he had a shop in our little town of Midland, PA. Made the best burgers after a game you'd ever want to eat. Fried on that grill that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in years with onions, pickle and mustard and seasoned with something he had in a tin can (his secret). MM MM
steelbill May 1, 2014
Ahh, burger love. One of my fondest food memories was my mothers burger fried in a cast iron skillet seasoned with black pepper ans Lawry's seasoned salt. Served on poppyseed bun with raw onions and mustard, pickle on the side. No cheese. Perfect.
Johnny R. May 1, 2014
Love this essay!! The Hinkle burger sounds amazing! Are the carmelized onions mixed throughout, or just sort of mashed to the exterior of the burger?
Linda May 1, 2014
Cooks Illustrated has a recipe for them. You have to slice the onions very thin, lightly salt them, and let the water drip from them. Then squeeze them in a clean dish cloth until almost dry. Form the burgers into a ball, mash them down on the onions. Heat iron frying pan with a little oil, and a TBS of butter. Salt and pepper the burgers, put face down in the hot pan on medium high heat. Mash burgers so onions caramelize.Flip, turn heat up to high so burgers get that little burnt edge. Serve on bun with pickle, mustard,and cheese. I prefer bleu cheese.
Daniel D. November 14, 2013
Have you seen the burger contest episode of Parks &Rec? Highly recommend!
emery August 30, 2013
Still eat the same burger --poppyseed roll -raw onion -s&p -medium rare
thirschfeld August 30, 2013
red or yellow onion?
emery November 15, 2013
I'm not THAT fussy
WellFedWit August 30, 2013
Did you go to college at IU?!? I only know of one place where you can get a Hinkle Burger!!
thirschfeld August 30, 2013
You know it!
WellFedWit August 30, 2013
Me too. Heading back next weekend for a wedding, so now I'll have to get one. I saw on your blog that you're back in Indiana- some very dear friends doing good things there are John and Abbi of Bluebeard and Genesis and Eli of Full Hand Farm. Maybe you already know them! It's a small world, after all.