The burgers of my youth

It began in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, spawning what was to become the first fast-food hamburger chain in the world. Now there are nearly 400 restaurants, selling over 500 million burgers a year…

The Toronto Star
July 28, 2004

The burgers of my youth
Richard Ouzounian

My name is Richard and I'm a White Castle-holic. Chances are, if you didn't spend your youth in the New York City area or the Midwestern United States, you won't know what I mean.

But there's a movie opening this Friday called Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle that's bound to drag a lot of people's hidden dependency into the light, so I thought I'd boldly lead the way,

Simply put, White Castle sells hamburgers, but that's like calling the Louvre a picture shop.

It began in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, spawning what was to become the first fast-food hamburger chain in the world.

Now there are nearly 400 restaurants, selling over 500 million burgers a year, but part of that statistic must be taken with a generous sprinkling of salt, because one of the distinctive features of White Castle burgers is their size.

They're tiny, almost canapé-sized. In fact, for many years, their slogan was "Buy 'em by the sack," with "sack" being the Midwestern slang for paper bag.

Each all-beef patty is 2.5 inches square and thinner than Britney Spears' attention span. They also have five spaced holes to allow for a unique cooking process. They aren't fried, or broiled or grilled. They're steamed over a bed of finely chopped onions, hissing away on a griddle. It's a point of honour that they are never flipped during their preparation.

Once the burgers have reached onion-drenched perfection, a single slice of dill pickle is placed in the centre of the patty and the entire creation is covered with a fluffy miniature white bun. When the vapour has penetrated the entire concoction, the burger is put together and placed in a signature white-and-blue cardboard container, ready to delight the palate.

The final result is affectionately known as a "Slyder." Fans claim it's because they go down so easy. Detractors insist the name is more apt in describing action at the other end a few hours later.

True devotees feel that a slice of processed cheese, an order of onion rings and an absurdly thick chocolate shake set the burgers off to perfection, but I always opted for the relative purity of their crinkle-cut fries and a giant Coke.

Writing about them, I actually feel myself starting to salivate and feel what true White Castle junkies call "The Crave" coming on.

Even though it's been nearly five years since my last Slyder, I realize that — like most former addicts — I'm only one bite away from a total relapse.

I first discovered them as a kid in Astoria, Queens, when they cost 12 cents each and were given to me by my parents as a reward for sitting through Sunday morning mass without squirming unduly.

In the back of my head, the heady scent of grilled onions still can evoke the memory of sermons about the Communist menace.

The burgers fell off my radar during high school years, which were spent on the East Side of Manhattan, a White Castle-free zone, but I more than made up for that when I hit college.

Fordham University was in the Bronx, and practically opposite the main gate was one the largest White Castles I had even seen. It proved to be a lifesaver for starving students, because in the late '60s, it was possible to eat yourself into oblivion for under $3. And it always proved a welcome conclusion to a hard night at the pub.

White Castle's marketing director, Jamie Richardson, assured me last week that the Fordham Rd. franchise remains one of the organization's most lucrative locations, and so I'm glad to see that some traditions remain intact.

If you'd like to sample the joys of the Slyder for yourself, the closest White Castle is in Port Huron, Michigan, across the border from Sarnia. Also, the burgers themselves are available frozen at Wegman's in Buffalo and Rochester.

There were a few weeks last summer when anyone driving through Mimico might have thought heaven had come to Canada, because it looked like a real White Castle had risen up there.

But alas, it was just a movie set, built for Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, the new stoner comedy which some fans are calling Dude, Where's My Slyder?

So, as usually happens with iconic hamburgers from our youth, we have to deal with memories.

Vancouver natives swear by the White Spot, Winnipeg expatriates pine for Kelekis and some transplanted Torontonians moon over Weber's. But in my case, the taste of a White Castle burger does for me what that elusive Madeleine did for Proust: It takes me right back to childhood, pickles and all.

Richard Ouzounian is the Star's theatre critic.


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