A Field Guide to Southern Hamburgers

HamburgerHamburger meat is on the way. The grinder just needs a few more cranks.

A. D. Livingston, in his great book On the Grill, tells the best hamburger story I have ever read, and it actually qualifies as one of the best stories I’ve ever read, period. It’s a tragi-comic tale of the decline of Southern food, and the Southern diet, both at the same time. It also involves high school football, cheerleaders, and grilled hamburgers. It doesn’t get much more Southern than that.

A. D. has a unique explanation for the year after year success of his local high school football team. It was the hamburgers served at each home game:

Above all else, however, I credit a few good ol’ boy chefs and the great American hamburger. Thick and juicy. Hot and tasty. Grilled to perfection.

Fans from both sides of the gridiron would mob the hamburger venue at the home field, lured in by the smell of ground beef cooking over hickory and charcoal, and the resulting revenue went to support the team.

Just as no good deed goes unpunished, however, all good things come to an end:

But slowly things changed and un-American activities began to gnaw at the spirit of the thing. By the time my son reached varsity football and I was called upon to lend my services as a chef, the situation had really become hopeless.

Locally ground quality beef had been replaced by Sam’s Club type pre-formed burgers. Not surprisingly, no one wanted to eat that garbage. When confronted with that reality, the new head of the Quarterback Club had the following answer for A. D. :

“Look, feller,” he said, fed up with me. “This is a ball game. If people want hamburgers, they’ll go to Hardee’s.”

And in that manner, the South fell again. Only the Southerners who fell this time were all so obese, they couldn’t get back up.

Let’s look at Southern burgers, traveling from East to West.

Carolina Burgers

This is something of a barbecue burger, and I have compiled a list of the most important ingredients. I think of this as being a North Carolina, instead of a South Carolina, burger.

  • Gotta have: Coleslaw, American Cheese
  • Gratuitous meat added: All meat chili
  • Burger: Ground Chuck

Anything with coleslaw is good, and I would throw in a slice of dill pickle as well. Be gratuitous.

Pimento and Cheese Burger

Originally a coastal specialty, this burger was something of a craze for awhile, and has spread around the country. Talk about a cheeseburger! Cheese, with peppers and mayo. That’s what I’m talking about.

  • Gotta have: Good Pimento and Cheese, and lots of it, and a slice of tomato
  • Gratuitous meat added: Bacon
  • Burger: Ground Chuck

Though this may be a slow motion infarction of a meal, one every so often probably won’t kill you. Probably.

Slug Burger, Penn Burger, Mystery Burger

This is the one I have been wanting to write about, a burger intended to be consumed by the Southern lumpenproletariat. You’re going to have to google that term. This low priced specialty is concentrated in the Tennessee Valley region of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, and surrounding environs. The Southern Foodways Alliance has a blog post dedicated to this curiosity. Let’s just say this one is not for everyone.

  • Gotta have: Filler, filler, filler. Usually Soybean Meal, Flour, or Oatmeal, as well as a boatload of condiments, to cover up the taste of the filler
  • Gratuitous meat added: As little as possible
  • Burger: Ground Beef, Pork, or whatever was found dead in the road

My hometown of Cullman was so special that we had TWO Mystery Burger joints, including a C. F. Penn franchise, where they deep fry the burgers. I had my first Mystery Burger when I was about ten, and even my ten year old brain said, “What the f*** is this?” Actually, it was also my last one. Foodies like to talk about “mouthfeel,” a term I find to be borderline obscene. Walk up to someone on the street, and ask, “How is your mouthfeel today?” This thing had the mouthfeel of the refuse from a lumberyard. Hence our family name for it: Sawdust Burger.

Louisiana Burger

How about from the ridiculous to the sublime? I’ve always thought that if Mississippi had not gotten in the way, Louisiana and Alabama would have been like two brothers who lived next to each other, and always tried to best each other at everything, be it good or bad. Corrupt as hell, and football and food crazy, Alabama has the James Beard award winning best restaurant in the country, Highlands Bar and Grill, (Frank Stitt, the owner and Executive Chef, just happens to be from Cullman), and the last I heard, a pretty good football team. Louisiana has chef Donald Link, among others, and LSU ain’t bad at football, either. Here is a short version of Chef John Folse’s Southern/Louisiana Burger:

  • Gotta Have: Egg,  Bread Crumbs, and Parmesan Cheese as a binder
  • Gratuitous meat added: None needed
  • Burger: Ground Chuck

Cheese IN the burger? Absolute genius. Whenever we had beef that was too lean back on the farm, we would use egg and flour as a binder. That’s when the connection struck me-it all goes back to the original hamburger from Germany. Donald Link is something of a German Cajun, having ancestors named Zaunbrecher, who helped establish rice farming in Louisiana. Talk about fusion. Talk about good.

The Basic Burger

Let’s get back to the basics, after all of these variations. Hamburger obviously originated in Hamburg, Germany, as Frankfurters originated in Frankfurt, and Wieners in Wien (Vienna). A Berliner is a kind of jelly doughnut, and people still debate if JFK stood before a huge crowd in Berlin in 1963, and said, “I am a Jelly Doughnut” (Ich bin ein Berliner). The more normal construction would have been “Ich bin Berliner.” I asked my German friend Torsten, who was an engineer at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, about that, and he said that context is everything, when it came to statements like JFK’s. So JFK was not a jelly doughnut, after all. He was a Mensch.

This basic burger recipe is similar to A. D Livingston’s, with a couple of additions:

  • Ground Chuck (I grind my own)
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • Worcestershire Sauce
  • Soy Sauce
  • Garlic Powder

Proportions are a matter of taste. I cook my burgers on a Lodge cast iron sportsman’s grill, over oak and hickory charcoal. I also like really strong dijon or creole mustard on my burger, and Vidalia onion. One thing I will never cook on my grill, however, is Mystery Burgers.

Author: southernfusionfood

Writer, Woodworker, and Happy Eater

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