The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 14, 2012

Remembering the burgers with fried onions of my youth

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— I think it’s time to take a little detour from the stern and sometimes dramatic moments in history, from the smoke of battlefields and presidential elections and the stuff that makes our national chronicle tick.

Let’s take a peak at something most of us have enjoyed over the span of our lives, and if you haven’t enjoyed it at least once or twice, then shame on you.

The plain old grilled hamburger with fried onions and mustard on a toasted bun made an unexpected visit back to my palate Wednesday last.

A co-worker decided to try the all-American fare from a local grill in a brand-new grocery on Enid’s South Van Buren, and asked me to join in half a bag of burgers with fried onions for $5.

OMG.

I think I had forgotten just how good, and how awe-inspiring the taste of a simple food made just right can be on the old memory machine.

I’m most sorry and feel pity for all the gourmets, the Julia Childs of this world who turn nose down to a delectable food that even a person of meager means can afford — and savor.

I remember as a boy walking the four blocks from our house in Waukomis to downtown, and on most good days, taking in the aroma of fried onions and hamburgers wafting down the wide concrete thoroughfare of my hometown.

Seems like there always were hamburgers sizzling and onions popping on the two grills at Domnick’s store and at Daugherty’s, just a short stone’s toss separated from one another.

These were the old-time grills that made a good burger with fried onions famous across this land of ours.

Everyone served them, from Dan and Bake and Pak-A-Sak in downtown Enid, to Lot-A-Burger and Lennox Drive-In and on and on.

You remember these old-time establishments, don’t you? That is, if you were around to take in the aroma that grabbed your olfactory center and tugged at it like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.

Of course, the hamburger has moved on from its simple roots, to burgers with everything slapped on them from bleu cheese to guacamole to bacon. But I’m here to defend the simple burger with fried onions and mustard as the purest form of Americana.

The hamburger, so named from Hamburg, Germany, by a gentleman known as Otto Kuase, is an unpretentious ground-beef patty between two slices of bread, first created on these shores around 1890. But then, there have been many claims over the years by others said to have first developed the hamburger.

Its origins are somewhat murky, as is much of history, but it is said to have gained national recognition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, when the New York Tribune namelessly attributed the hamburger as “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike.”

The hamburger with grilled onions became a staple of little six- and eight-stool, white-painted diners from one end of Oklahoma — and for that matter, America — to the other during the Great Depression.

Onions were cheap back then, and a nickel ground-meat patty grilled alongside became absolutely standard fare for the vast spectrum of Americans, wrought daily by privation during that world economic catastrophe.

Just because it was quite tasty, cheap and easy to fix doesn’t mean it had to run up a lobster-sized three-figure bill when you went out to eat.

For those who lived through the tribulation of the Great Depression, a good old all-American hamburger had to have been like eating steak at a five-star restaurant.

Shoot, just down the road a piece, along U.S. 81’s busy route, El Reno has its Burger Day Festival, a yearly step back in time which began in 1988, to help promote downtown revitalization, and which again is scheduled for May 4 of the upcoming year.

I mean, who hasn’t driven through El Reno and not at some odd moment caught a whiff of grilled burgers and onions at Robert’s Grill?

OK, for all the health-conscious among us, I’m not advocating you go out and buy them every day. I’m just saying every now and then, it’s nostalgic to take a return trip down burger-and-fried-onions memory lane.

And, on occasion, I’ll step outside the News & Eagle newsroom here in downtown Enid, and catch a whiff of burgers and fried onions being slapped down on a sizzling grill somewhere.

And suddenly, I’m back to 1959 in downtown Waukomis, America — all over again.



Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking