I am of the hamburger generation, and I'm not ashamed to say it, so slice the Walla Wallas, set out the pickles and bring on the condiments. Yummy is as yummy does.
My six-decade fondness for a quarter-pound beef patty cooked to perfection is not going to diminish during my senior years, and it might even grow stronger as the list of foods I can digest begins to dwindle. My love of the great American hamburger will endure, period.
A delicious, quality-beef hamburger is hard to beat, and anyone who says differently is itching for a fight. As a taste-treat delight, it just doesn't get much better - summer, winter or fall. That's why I'm so disgusted with the gross, over-the-top evolution of the burger and how it's portrayed to consumers throughout America and the world.
How so? I'll explain shortly, but first a history lesson:
My initial encounter with a circular piece of ground beef, artfully placed in the middle of a golden brown bun, occurred in the mid-1950s at my grandpa Nick's candy shop and soda fountain in Tuscola, Ill.
My grandmother, who was in charge of the grill, used to cook the burgers, and she had it down to a science. Each patty was skillfully shaped and flattened, and I can distinctly remember the sizzling sound it made as it was slapped on the hot surface.
We'd visit Tuscola and the candy shop frequently in the summer, and after helping out around the place during the morning influx of coffee drinkers and donut eaters, I'd be rewarded with a delicious lunch. Hopping up on a tall, round stool at the elongated counter, I'd wait for my prize. I could barely contain my excitement.
Within a few short minutes, grandma would put a burger in front of me, perhaps a small order of fries and a vanilla Coca Cola served in a tiny "Coke" glass. Although I ate free, it always amazed me that Nick would charge just 5 cents (that's right, a nickel) for that delightful drink. Wish I had one right now.
It was also around that time when my mom's friend - we called her Aunt Leila - took my older sister and me to check out a new phenomenon that was causing quite a stir from coast to coast: McDonald's. So we drove from Mt. Zion, Ill. to Decatur and soon found out what all the fuss was about.
As we turned a corner, the Golden Arches magically appeared before us and the place was jam-packed with enthusiastic, and curious, diners. It was a unique concept no one had ever seen before: A restaurant devoted solely to hamburgers and French fries. No sitting required, and no need to leave a tip.
You just walked up to the counter, placed your order and then took it back to your vehicle to enjoy. Easy peezy. Not only were the fast service and delicious fare appreciated, the prices made it nearly impossible to resist. A regular burger (there were no "super" burgers at that time) was just 15 cents, and an order of fries (one size only) was a dime. Incredible. I wolfed down two hamburgers and some fries and it cost less than half a dollar. About 55 cents with a pop included. For $1, you could get enough burgers to last a week. For $1.50, you were a ground beef king.
While everyone wondered if this new "fad" would catch on and be sustainable, the answer came quickly. McDonald's began popping up everywhere and it didn't take long for other entrepreneurs to capitalize on the trend.
As a result, America was soon inundated with fast-food joints ... from Burger King to Wendy's to Hardee's ... the list is endless. In major metropolitan areas, it's hard to swing a dead cat without hitting a "hamburger" franchise. But then gluttony and greed took over and the simplistic offerings of the original McDonald's exploded into a variety of burgers and fish and chicken sandwiches too numerous to comprehend.
The "Big Mac," featuring "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun," became America's favorite hamburger, but that was challenged shortly thereafter by Burger King's "Whopper," which was promoted as flame-broiled rather than fried. (Gotta admit, I've eaten enough Big Mac's to support an entire franchise, but if I had to choose one or the other, I'm picking the Whopper.)
Nowadays, the situation is completely out of control. The simple hamburger or cheeseburger has been shoved aside in favor of massive concoctions that feature two or three or even four beef patties stacked on top of each other and placed, along with tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles and just about anything else you can think of, on a double- or triple-decker bun.
If that doesn't excite your taste buds, some places -- and not just the national franchises -- have gone to a one-half-pound (or bigger), super-thick hunk of beef that is nearly impossible to bite into without dislocating your jaw.
Every time I see a TV commercial with someone trying to get their mouth around a massive, six-inch-thick hamburger that could feed a small village, it makes me want to hurl. It doesn't look appetizing at all. It looks disgusting.
Even when I grill out, I refuse to make the hamburgers overly thick. Instead, I try to remember how my grandmother used to shape them, and reminisce about the days when I sat at Nick's counter and experienced true hamburger nirvana. Pass the ketchup and mustard. And don't forget the vanilla coke.