By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, saying unto them, speak unto the Children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat. So far I was with Leviticus, but he had a lot more to say on the topic of thou-shalt-not-eat:
Nevertheless these you shall not eat of those that chew the cud, or of those who part the hoof: the camel, because he chews the cud but doesn't have a parted hoof, he is unclean to you.
The pig, because he has a split hoof, and is cloven-footed, but doesn't chew the cud, he is unclean to you.
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All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you.
All other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.
These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind, and the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.
I ran the list in my head. Fowls that creep, going upon all four? I couldn't think of any four-legged fowls, save those from mythology, but if someone (most likely in West Texas or Montana) starts ranching sphinxes or gryffons, damn straight I'll eat 'em. Flying creeping things? That means bugs, and I've eaten plenty. The weasel? Never tried it, although I've had squirrel, and it's nasty. The mouse? Absolutely. Tortoise? Check. Ferret? No. The chameleon and the lizard? Chameleon, no, but I've eaten lizards: They're like chewing on a belt spread with rancid bacon grease. The snail? Yes, whenever possible. The mole? Again, I'm game.
Lucky for me, I am not one of the Children of Israel. My wife is half a one, but from what I hear, the condition is not contagious, no matter how hard I try. What I am is one of the Children of Mike and Cindy Sheehan of Rochester, New York. A German-Irish family of mixed Catholic and Protestant descent, we had few formal rules regarding food that weren't in some way related to thrift and fierce portion control. Two cookies from a box of roughly 10,000 stale and off-brand sandwich cookies for dessert; cheap cheddar that became aged cheddar in my mother's perpetually overstuffed refrigerator.
Still, when my brother and I were young, my parents subscribed to a nearly Levitican theory of menu planning. Like Moses, Aaron and the Children of Israel, we Children of Belcoda Drive ate regularly of the parteth of hoof, the cloven of foot, the chewers of cud, disdaining in our beef (and occasional venison) fixation all those creatures that crept or flew. Cindy did not boil tortoises for supper. Mike did not grill lizards. None of us ate of the snail. We do now. But back then, we were all abstemious in accidental, partial accord with Leviticus, devoted eaters of many God-pleasing ruminants — most often ground up and served in the form of cheeseburgers.
Had we, the tribe of Rochester, pushed farther west rather than settling on the alternately frozen or chokingly humid shore of Lake Ontario, Culver's Butterburgers & Frozen Custard would've been one of our temples. We had plenty of our own (Schaller's and Bill Gray's and the LDR and Abbott's Frozen Custard), but Culver's — a 350-outlet staple of the American middle west, with a handful of locations up and down I-25 — is something special. You can't cook a cheeseburger at home the way Culver's does. Part of the reason is lack of equipment: Unless you are very rich and very dedicated, you do not have a gleaming, forty-inch expanse of searing steel flat-top in your kitchen. Another part is expertise: Culver's has been flipping cheeseburgers since 1984, when Craig and Lea and George and Ruth Culver started out in a former A&W location in Sauk City, Wisconsin, expanding from there at wildfire speed. Still another part is commitment: Each Culver's makes its own burgers, to order, every day. Nothing is frozen. Nothing is purchased pre-prep.
And the last part is pure craziness, because the best of the burgers at Culver's — a burger pulled from cultish burger pre-history and raised by the Culvers to a trademarked specialité de la maison — is the butterburger, which is exactly what it sounds like: a burger slathered with, glazed by and cooked in butter.
Without the flat-top, the practice, a gigantic tub of dairyland prime butter close at hand and the mad willingness to use it in such an unnatural fashion, you're never going to make a burger like the butterburger at Culver's. Which is probably a good thing, because once you develop a taste for a butterburger, you'll be tempted to eat them all the time. And while God's law allows me to eat of the cow all I want, even a cow ground into hamburger and coated in butter, simple biology will eventually limit my intake. By killing me. A butterburger is the antithesis of health food, weighting the end of the scale opposite a small green salad, nuts, berries, sprouts. A butterburger is the gustatory equivalent of swallowing a live hand grenade.
And a live hand grenade coated in butter.
It's delicious. My first time at Culver's, I sat in the blue-and-white dining room that looks exactly like you'd imagine a franchised, quick-serve family restaurant would look: friendly, bright, welcoming, made for people with large appetites and larger pants sizes. I ordered what could be considered the defining Midwestern meal: a single butterburger with cheese, a side of fried cheese curds and a root beer that's the chain's own blend and brand. The root beer was sweeter than usual and would make an excellent float with a little vanilla ice cream and a double shot of bourbon. The fried cheese curds were breaded, not battered, and forgettable. The butterburger was a nothingburger after one bite, curious after two, addicting after three and gone after six.
At first glance, the butterburger doesn't seem different from any other decent cheeseburger out there — better, absolutely, than McDonald's (where Craig Culver worked for four years before throwing in with Mom and Dad), not so good as the best bar burgers. It's small, flat and oddly shiny — shellacked, even, and set on a bun that's been buttered and browned to a crisp on the flat-top. After two or three bites, that butter — all that beautiful, slick butter — begins to make itself felt, coating the mouth, mixing with the juices of a patty that's thin but by no means dry. The taste is rich and smooth and uncompromisingly decadent — an eye-opening lushness that builds with every bite. Beef and butter isn't an original idea (it's been done for centuries in Africa, and the French were hip early on to such fat-on-protein tricks), but here it's codified and brought to fruition.
My second time at Culver's, I went through the drive-thru for a deluxe butterburger with bacon (Leviticus be damned); crinkle-cut fries, heavily salted, served in a paper envelope dotted with grease; more root beer and a small bucket of mashed potatoes topped with thick chicken gravy. I didn't eat everything, but I ate a lot. And though my logical next stop should have been a church where I could've made my peace with God before expiring messily in the breakdown lane of the highway from multiple heart attacks, I instead went home because home is where I keep my beer — a burger's best friend — and Culver's is a dry operation.
In other biblical passages, fasting receives much attention as a method of purifying the soul, and gluttony is laid out quite plainly as a sin. For those writers of the Old Testament, to overdo a thing was to lack dignity and humility — two qualities I've never been accused of possessing in great store, anyway. So the next morning, I was ready for more burgers.
I headed for Smashburger, a new, Colorado-based chain currently just two links long — but with beer! The owner is Cervantes Capital, which acquired the semi-famous Icon Burger in Lafayette about two years ago and used it as a "living laboratory" to experiment with the QSR concept, then opened the first Smashburger in south Denver almost six months ago, in a South Colorado Boulevard strip mall. Smashburger has all the affectations of a standard QSR operation: counter-ordering and tableside delivery, a fast and easily navigable menu, a simple and easily duplicatable decor of red and gray, tables and booths, swooping curves and iron mesh. But it also has a far from standard burger. "Smashburger was designed for the two or three out of ten QSR customers who wanted something better," explains Tom Ryan, Cervantes's chief concept officer.
Like Culver's, Smashburger has figured out the trick of buttering the egg buns and grilling them on the flat-top for that extra, luxurious kick of fat. But unlike at Culver's, the better-burger variation at Smashburger is mostly physical, not ingredientiary. Here the burgers are truly smashed — thrown and mashed onto the flat-top grill with a press that I at first thought was for show, then realized played an important role. When a half-pound of ground, nicely fatty Angus beef is whacked onto the hot steel, it produces a flood of meat juice that caramelizes instantly into a crispy halo of blood and fat around the edge of the burger. It's like meat candy, the delicacy you lose when a burger is cooked on a slotted grill — the traditional cooking surface for burgers smashed by hand.
This burger is fantastic not at the third bite or the fourth, but from the very first. For starters, there's that crisp bit of caramelized juice, then the tender, luscious (even at medium-well) meat, a secret sauce (that isn't really that secret: just ketchup, mayonnaise, chopped pickle and lemon juice), quality toppings that include chili, guacamole or a fried egg. It's an excellent, if somewhat calculated, burger made by an excellent, if somewhat calculating, operation.
And it's good enough to make following the conventions of Leviticus seem easy. With a burger like this, who needs lizards?
Still, every time I find myself standing before the counter at Smashburger, filling out the little card with my wants and needs, checking this and circling that, I can't help but add a cross of applewood-smoked bacon, sometimes double bacon, to my smashburger with cheese. May God have mercy on my soul.