Cafe Society

Cow Town

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.

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan