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Pride, Tradition, and Grease: Hamburger America

review by dave heaton

A hand flipping a hamburger over as it cooks is the first image you see in Hamburger America, a documentary now on DVD which offers looks at 8 restaurants across the U.S. that specialize in hamburgers. From that common image of a hamburger cooking, the film quickly segues into a woman working at a restaurant telling the story of a man running in to buy a bunch of cheeseburgers while his wife was in the car going into labor. That level of obsession is one common theme in the stories of all the restaurants depicted. Another is personality. These aren't ordinary hamburger places; each one has its own unique way of doing things. The people running the restaurant give their own unique stamp to the food and the place itself, and the customers, with their own quirks and habits, build off that to further the place's unique identity.

These restaurants stand in stark contrast to the film's invisible Other: the corporate fast-food chains. They're distinct, and distinctly human. Each draws from, and adds to, its local community in positive ways. Many are run by families, and were passed down through generations. And most make a point of using fresh, local ingredients.

Dyer's World Famous Hamburgers, on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, opens the film, with its deep-fried hamburger, cooked in the same reused grease since the restaurant opened in 1912. It even moved to a new location since then, and had a city ceremony, with a police escort, for the transportation of the grease. "Pride, tradition, and grease," is what the owner says Dyer's is about, and he could just as well be described many of the other restaurants in the film, located in cities and towns across the country. Each place visited in this hour-long film has its own unique history, its own interesting anecdotes. Each has its own regular customers people who've been coming there for decades, people who eat there three times a day, people who might spend hours sharing tales of what the place once was, of what it is now, and of how much the place means to them. And each restaurant has a truly unique way of cooking hamburgers.

There's steamed cheeseburgers at Ted's Restaurant in Meriden, Connecticut; peanut butter-covered "goober burgers" at the Wheel Inn Drive-Inn in Sedalia, Missouri; drenched-in-butter "butter burgers" at Solly's Grille in Glendale, Wisconsin; enormous Meers burgers at Meers Restaurant in Meers, Oklahoma; green chile cheeseburgers at Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The film also looks at the home of the first hamburger, Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Billygoat Tavern in Chicago, the place made famous by a John Belushi skit on Saturday Night Live.

Like most worthwhile books or films about food, the documentary Hamburger America is really about a whole lot more than just food. It's about people, about communities, about America. It's about how what and where we eat reflects our personalities and brings people together. It's a compelling testament to the uniqueness of people and places.


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