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Texas Burger Binge

Our food critic reports on the state of the Texas burger -- and recommends 18 you need to try immediately

The burger was a monster -- well over a pound of ground meat scorched to a forbidding-looking shade of black with charred bits on the outside that crunched between your molars. The black crust was a delightful contrast to the rosy pink interior, which oozed juices. The homemade bun was decorated with the traditional Texas garnish: pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato, with mustard and mayo on the bun.

I gave this purist's rendition of the Texas hamburger a perfect ten on my ballot sheet. But when the results of the 2005 Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off were announced, this awesome classic burger didn't even make the top three.

The contest was held on June 11 in Athens, an East Texas town that calls itself the "Original Home of the Hamburger." In a field of 15 contestants, I awarded three perfect tens. Maybe my standards as a hamburger judge were a bit too lenient. Or maybe, after years of eating cooked-to-death hamburgers made from frozen patties, I was just overjoyed to see so many old-fashioned hand-formed hamburgers all in one place.

Burger judge Amanda Stewart samples the winner at 
the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off.
Robb Walsh
Burger judge Amanda Stewart samples the winner at the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off.
Arnold's Texas burger is served on an iconic bun.
Robb Walsh
Arnold's Texas burger is served on an iconic bun.

According to a new book called Hamburgers and Fries by John T. Edge, artisanal hamburgers, as the new hand-formed burgers are being called, are making a comeback across the country. "We are at this very moment, in the midst of a burger renaissance," he writes. To prove it, Edge takes us on a grand tour of the American burger-scape, with several notable stops in Texas. The book's final scene is set here in Houston, the home of some of the nation's most remarkable burgers.

Ever since reading the book, I've had burgers on the brain. If our state and our hometown were playing a part in a national hamburger revival, then I figured I ought to be on the front lines filing some firsthand reports. So I did my own mini-tour this summer to check out the state of the Texas burger.

For my remedial eating, I sought out the famous burgers around the state that I'd read about but never tried. I also ate a couple dozen classic hamburgers here in Space City and compiled a list of standouts in several genres (see sidebar). And then there are the 15 burgers I ate in one day while judging the burger cook-off in Athens -- a burger binge that proved to be extremely educational.

The Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off was founded in 1984 to publicize Athens as the "birthplace of the hamburger." One of the organizers was Dallas newspaperman Frank X. Tolbert, who helped supply the proof that it was an Athens cafe owner named Fletcher Davis who first put a cooked ground meat patty between two slices of bread in the late 1880s, and subsequently at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, where a reporter for the New York Tribune made the first documented mention of a "hamburger sandwich."

Frank X. Tolbert claimed that the guy who served the burger to the reporter was Fletcher Davis. Along with numerous oral histories, Tolbert had discovered a photo of the World's Fair midway in the possession of an Athens banker with a handwritten caption that pointed out "Old Dave's Hamburger Stand." (Fletcher Davis was known as Uncle Fletch and later as Old Dave.)

Tolbert died a few months before the first contest was held. For 20 years or so, his Athens, Texas, creation story competed with similar yarns from all over the country. Hamburg, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; and Seymour, Wisconsin, have also declared themselves the birthplace of the hamburger. Most of those claims are based on oral histories given by family members of the purported inventor. None comes with any written or photographic evidence.

No doubt the idea of putting ground meat on a sandwich occurred to several people at around the same time. During the Civil War, James Salisbury, an Ohio physician, used a diet of minced or ground beef patties to cure soldiers of intestinal ills. His "Salisbury steaks" became popular all over the country in the late 1800s. Putting one on toast took no great leap of imagination.

But the Athens story gained official acceptance during the meat industry's "100th anniversary of the hamburger" celebration last year. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association headquarters in Denver issued press releases pinpointing the hamburger's birth date to the World's Fair of 1904 and crediting Fletcher Davis as the inventor.

The publicity took the town of Athens by surprise. The Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off was suspended in 1999. Logistics and traffic were the official explanations. But the hamburger had fallen on hard times, beginning with the Jack in the Box scandal of 1993, and worsening in 1998 after the Hudson Foods hamburger-patty recall prompted the USDA to tell consumers to treat all ground meat as if it were contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Perhaps health and liability concerns had something to do with the cancellation of the contest.

But thanks to all the attention Athens was getting, the charcoal grills were dusted off and the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off was resumed in conjunction with the anniversary celebration in 2004. I called the organizers and talked them into letting me be a judge at this year's event. I was exaggerating a little when I told them I was a burger expert. But I figured I still had a couple of months to cram.

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