I’m currently reading the memoirs of Roger Ebert, the famous film critic and one of my favourite writers. I’m up to a chapter that is entirely dedicated to praising the Shake n’ Steak fast food chain.
The Steakburger is a symphony of taste and texture. Steak n’ Shake has always boasted “We grind all the select cuts – sirloin, porterhouse, ribs, filet.” This they do in “our own Government-Inspected Commissary,” located in, of course, Normal, Illinois. The sandwich is Served on a Toasted Bun. If you order onion, it will be a perfect slice of sweet Bermuda. If you order pickles, you will get two thin slices, side by side. Mustard, relish, tomato, lettuce can all be added. When you bite into the Steakburger, it is al dente all the way through: toasted bun, crispy patty, onion, pickle, crunch, crunch, crunch. The Steakburger has remained unchanged since 1945.
My Steak n’ Shake fetish is not unique. On an early visit to the Letterman show, I said to David during the commercial break, “I hear you’re from Indianapolis, home of the head office of the Steak n’ Shake.”
“In sight, it must be right” he said. Our eyes locked in communion.
“Four ways to enjoy,” I said.
“Car, table, counter or takhomasak,” he replied.
“Specializing in selected foods…”
“With a desire to please the most discriminating.”
“Thank you for your patronage.”
“Signed A.H Belt (founder),” he said, and we shared a nod of great satisfaction.
This is a man who is serious about his burgers.
I got to experience my own burger-related sermon when I was in Disneyland. Jen and I were having drinks at Ariel’s Grotto when we struck up conversation with a couple who were visiting from Northern California, Mike and Amanda. We asked for some pointers on our upcoming trip to San Francisco. When we mentioned our intention to eat at an In-N-Out Burger restaurant, their eyes lit up.
“We love that place!” Mike exclaimed. “We drive for miles to eat at our nearest In-N-Out Burger. It’s what Amanda and I bonded over.”
“They have a secret menu there. When you order a burger, make sure you get it Animal Style. You can also triple or quadruple your patties if you want.”
It turns out that ‘Animal Style’ means you get caramelized onions on your burger and the secret preparation is not that secret after all. It’s not listed on the menu in the restaurant but its right there on the official website. Still, I like the idea of a diner having off-menu requests for their food to make loyal patrons feel like they’re part of a secret club.
Burgers in America are serious business and as important to the way of life as God and Guns. Sure, we get McDonalds and Burger King in the rest of the world but I believe most American burger enthusiasts view them as the dull cardboard tasting monolithic entities like the rest of us. The serious burger connoisseur will go for White Castle, Steak N’ Shake or the In-N-Out Burger every time. These smaller, lesser known franchises don’t have the global reach of a McDonalds but they all have their loyal followers who seem happy to wait in line just to get their fix. The burgers there aren’t necessarily any healthier for you but they sure do taste a lot better.
I think what makes the smaller franchises interesting to me is that they attract the more passionate patrons (Ebert and Letterman, Mike and Amanda) and they are more predisposed to having crazy menu items (quad-stacked patties) or eccentric owners. Lynsi Torres, the heiress of the In-And-Out Burger empire carries the distinction of being America’s Youngest Female Billionaire. She has also been married 3 times before hitting the age of 30.
Jen and I had about five or six different burgers in America at a rate of one nearly every four days. They were absolutely delicious and although eating all that fried cheese probably took years off my life, I still fondly recall chowing down on the Shackburger and the Big Daddy. No regrets!
Coming back home to Australia, I’ve decided that I actually admire the Americans and their love of a good burger. It is no bad thing to take pride in your national fast food dish.
In Australia, we love our meat pies and sausage rolls but if we’re honest, most of the pies and rolls you get served here are pretty god awful. Think about Mrs Macs Pies which contain less than 30% of actual beef in them. Or the crusty, stale, day-old pies on offer at Pie Face. If we had more dedicated pie makers in Australia that actually made a concerted effort to concoct a flavoursome pie, our country would be a tiny bit better off for it.