When i was a boy, growing up outside Philadelphia, my father used to take me out to Gene's Diner for lunch. It was only a short walk from our house, and I always had the same thing: the hamburger platter. I have no idea what came with the hamburger, but it couldn't have been much because the hamburger itself covered the entire plate. It was very thin, very greasy, very well-done, and absolutely delicious. What made it even better was the special treatment we got from Gene.
My father would always go to the cash register to pay, and Gene would always refuse to take his money. After some friendly arguing, Gene would always win. "Come on, Padre," he would say. "You bring me customers. You bring me good fortune." My father was the Episcopal minister in town; and I doubt, now, that many of his parishioners ever ate at Gene's. But at the time I accepted this elaborate charade as gospel truth.
The closest I ever got to Gene's hamburgers in the next 10 years were the ones at White Castle chain restaurants. Of course they were much smaller. It took about four of them to make one of Gene's. But they were well-done, greasy, thin, and delicious; and you could still have lunch for less than a dollar.
Then the whole concept of hamburgers changed. Hamburger Heavens took over, and everything became very upscale and expensive. It was another meal entirely. Also delicious, but....
A "Heavenly Hamburger" was at least an inch thick and came "rare" or "medium rare" and never "well-done." They were cooked over charcoal grills by men in chef's hats, and were served on cutting boards rather than plates. You took dates to Hamburger Heaven. And then you went out on the town.
WHEN I bit into my first McDonald's hamburger, I thought, "Here it is: Gene's." But I was wrong. It was greasy, all right; and thin; and well-done. But where was the taste? All gone - buried in the shredded lettuce and the paper-thin slices of tomato and whatever that sauce was they put on it. It wasn't even close.
But perhaps over the years I'd been spoiled by the hamburgers from heaven. They had become my ne w ideal. Unfortunately, they went out of business, taking their secrets with them.
Why was it next to impossible to cook hamburgers that way yourself - even over the charcoal grill? Was the secret in the meat? Chuck was too greasy, round too tough, and if you were going to buy ground sirloin, you might as well have steak. In fact, grilled steak became the picnic food of the day. Steak sandwiches. Steak, corn on the cob, and potato salad! I practically forgot about hamburgers.
"You like hamburgers that are thick and juicy and medium-rare?" my friend Bill asked me one day many years later. We were at a diner he'd been telling me about.
"Sure," I said. "But where can you get one these days?"
"Right here," he said. "I recommend the bacon-cheddar-cheeseburger."
And so it happened. I had found it. A Heavenly Hamburger made by Gene, fried on a grill to give it that greasy taste; bacon and melted cheddar cheese for extra richness. A half-inch patty, for ease in handling; but juicy and pink at the center.
It was the best of both worlds - the two in one - the burger of all burgers. "Hold the pickle!" was all I ever needed to say after that.
Then we moved. And I searched in vain for this burger of burgers for many more years. "This hamburger's well-done," I said to my wife, Elaine. "I'm sending it back."
"Ummm!" she said. "Give it to me."
"Count to 20, and then turn it over," I instructed one chef. "Put on the cheese. Count to 10. Place the bacon strips on the cheese and slide the burger onto the bun."
Too rare. I asked the waitress to send it back. "Tell him to put it on the grill for just a few seconds." She nodded her head. It came back, of course, well-done.
It must have been the hundredth place we tried. "At least there's a good view of the river," Elaine said.
"I have to warn you: I'm terribly fussy," I said to the waitress. "Do you think your chef can come up with a hamburger that is medium rare?"
"Sure," she said. "Any way you like it."
I tried not to get my hopes up as I sat there impatiently, imagining what the cook might be doing. Was the grill too hot? Not hot enough? Had he scraped off all traces of onion? Was the bacon burned or underdone? Would the otherwise perfect burger be destroyed by the presence of American cheese? And what of the beef? Did they make the patties by hand? Most important, did the chef have that je ne sais quoi, that inner clock that says precisely when to turn the meat, when to put on the cheese, and when to slip it all onto the perfectly grilled bun? "Now!" I all but shouted. And there it was.
'PERFECT," said Elaine, taking the first bite of her liver, bacon, and onions. A good sign, I noted. The liver was indeed well-done.
I picked up my bacon-cheddar-cheeseburger. The protruding strips of bacon looked right. The cheese was properly melted. And now for the first bite - a big one, straight to the heart.
"How is it?" Elaine said.
"Delicious!" I responded, savoring not only the best of all possible burgers but the knowledge that the restaurant that served it was only a short drive from our house.