Tiny Hamburger Week

Bonjour, mes amis! When A Hamburger Today signed off Friday, we mentioned bringing you a special week of coverage, a "hugely tiny" week, we hinted. Well, welcome to "Tiny Hamburger Week."

TBWLogo.jpgWithout tiny hamburgers, AHT likely would not exist. That's because "sliders," as they're sometimes called, are my second favorite food (pizza being my favorite) and seemed a natural topic for a niche foodblog. On second thought, though, that's probably a little too niche, so the scope of AHT was widened to burgers in general. Anyway, what you don't care about that, do you?

You might care about White Castle, though. White Castle, or château blanc if you will, is the ur-miniburger and the progenitor of all fast-food chains as we know them. In a wonderful New York Times article [via the paper's pay archives] from last August, Paul Lukas details the history of the "system," as it was dubbed by its founders, Edgar Ingram and J. Walter Anderson:

Despite its significance in the nation's culinary history, not to mention several noteworthy marketing innovations, White Castle gets little respect, even by fast-food standards. Its little square burgers and turreted restaurants have become something of a pop-culture punch line, stuck somewhere between white-trash chic and ironic kitsch. Even the title premise of "Harold & Kumar" carries a wink-wink undercurrent of absurdity.

"Part of that is because White Castle began marketing to the urban working class," said David Gerard Hogan, author of "Selling 'Em by the Sack" (New York University Press, 1997), which details the chain's history. "And their restaurants were located in areas that eventually became the urban underclass, which leads to a lowbrow profile. People don't realize they pulled off one of the greatest marketing feats of the century — up there with Bill Gates and Microsoft."

The credit for that goes to Mr. Ingram, a former real-estate and insurance agent who entered the burger business in 1921 after arranging a lease deal for a Wichita [Kansas] restaurateur named J. Walter Anderson. It was Mr. Anderson who had come up with the thin, onion-smothered patty that would eventually become White Castle's signature product. But with "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair still fresh in the public mind, and many health authorities likening ground beef to toxic waste, Mr. Anderson faced a credibility gap.

That's where Mr. Ingram came in. He essentially created a public relations campaign for the hamburger, beginning with the White Castle name — "White" to connote purity, "Castle" to signify strength. He was fanatical about cleanliness and hygiene, and his masterstroke was to have White Castle operators grind their own meat from high-grade cuts of beef in public view, to demonstrate that it was fresh.

It worked. By 1930, White Castle outlets were scattered across the Midwest, inspiring a legion of imitators, and the hamburger was being described by the president of the National Restaurant Association as "America's food."

20050523BuyEm.jpgIt was around that time that Mr. Ingram pioneered the promotion of takeout service, leading to White Castle's iconic slogan, "Buy 'em by the sack." He also turned White Castle into the first vertically integrated restaurant operation, creating one subsidiary to build the restaurants and another to make the company's paper products. Innovations like those laid the groundwork for the suburban fast-food explosion of the 1950's.

For all that Whitey's has done for burgerkind, its signature product remains largely an acquired taste. It seems most folks who have tried them either love Slyders (the "y" spelling is trademarked by the Castle) or detest them with every fiber of their being. Fans of the belly bombers usually grew up eating them; trying to turn adult Whitey's virgins on to Slyders is a tricky proposition at best.

Still, for better or worse, the salty, steamy, pickle-and-onion-heavy burgerettes remain the standard by which this reporter judges all tiny hamburgers. And so it's for the better that I turn over the upcoming reviews this week to Matty and Honey P., who might better judge these restaurants on their own merit, without the Castle laying siege to the senses. Stay tuned ...

We've got some reviews from New York City coming, and our West Coast editor, Hamburglar Hadley, is searching for sliders in L.A. (so far to no avail), but we need help for other mini-burger places of note around the country. If you know of a good place to procure this delicacy, let us know in the Comments section, with or without a brief description. Or, if you prefer, e-mail us at wimpy (at) ahamburgertoday (dot) com. Tell us what's so good about Krystal Burger. Recount your visits to Cozy Inn. We'll post a round-up of these places later in the week.

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