"There was a little something in that burger—the seasoning of salt air? A stray grain of sand? Or just the memory of burgers past?—that I’ve never tasted anywhere else."
Proust was right—nothing brings back childhood memories like a bite from the past. But nothing brings on the sad grown-up veil of disillusionment like coming back to a childhood favorite that’s not quite what you remembered.
So as I drove a rusty old Land Cruiser out to Surfside Beach on Nantucket Island, in search of a once-beloved beach shack burger that I hadn’t ordered in over a decade, I was more than a little nervous. Would it taste as good as I'd remembered?
These burgers had been the highlight of many hot summer afternoons, back in my days of sandcastle building. My always-conscientious mother would pack a lunch in the cooler, turkey sandwiches and lemonade and Tupperware containers of strawberries, but healthier options held little interest for me. I would always beg for a burger.
How could I not? Walking from the parking lot down to the water, we’d have to pass the snack shack—a weathered, shingled hut that looked as if one strong gust of wind would blow it right over. From inside crept the most incredible aroma, a smell of browning beef and sizzling grease that cut through the scent of salty air and sun-warmed pavement, following a hungry kid all the way down to the waves and hitting straight in the stomach. To get a whiff of the burgers and not have one for lunch? The thought was too much to bear.
So I'd beg, and I'd plead, and while it wasn’t a sure thing, my parents would often give in, handing over a five-dollar bill that I’d crumple happily in my hand. (Plus, if I was really lucky, a few extra quarters for a Slush Puppy.) And wrapping a flower-patterned towel over my sandy little rump, I would run up the hill for my very favorite burger. An impassioned eater even at age six, I’d insist on going up to the shack myself so I could layer on just the right condiments, even though it meant leaving the beach and waiting for lunch on the hot, smelly pavement. (I didn't trust anyone else to get the ketchup, relish, and chopped onion right.) But it was always worth it.
Until this last weekend, I hadn’t had one of their burgers in years, thanks to busier summers and an extended stint as a vegetarian. Somewhat ironically, it was a burger that convinced me to stop eating red meat, and another that got me hooked again. An unfortunately bright pink, mealy McDonald's patty scared me off the cow at age ten for nearly a decade—until the smell of grilling cheeseburgers at my first college tailgate finally cracked through my resolve. In recent years, I’ve had the occasional burger, though I no longer spend my summers on Surfside Beach, boogie boarding in the Atlantic.
But when visiting family on the Fourth of July, I ran away to the beach for lunch. Pulling into the Surfside parking lot, the smell of sizzling meat hit me before the sound of the ocean did. And, to my enormous relief and delight, the burger was everything I’d remembered. A juicy, thin griddled patty, still pink and beefy in the middle, under a blanket of fully melted American cheese—still just five bucks, an outright steal for a ritzy little island. There was a real sear on the outside, and real flavor within, juices (and a bit of char) seeping into the soft interior of the toasted, sesame-studded roll. And there was a little something in that burger—the seasoning of salt air? A stray grain of sand? Or just the memory of burgers past?—that I’ve never tasted anywhere else.
Nantucket Island has changed a lot in recent decades, and goodness knows I have, too. But it’s comforting to know that some burgers stay the same.
Surfside Beach Shack
Surfside Beach, Nantucket MA 02554 (map)
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