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.
Call it research or call it gluttony, but a conservative estimate of the number of burgers I sampled would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 65.
The waiter at DB Bistro in Manhattan brought me what looked like an oversize meatball balanced between two halves of a dinner roll. A wooden skewer kept the unwieldy meat in place between the diminutive buns. It was decorated with rounds of roasted tomato, feathery frisée and slices of red onion. Three jars of fine Dijon mustards, along with ketchup and mayonnaise, were offered on the side.
This was the one and only stop outside Texas in my hamburger pilgrimage. But I had to experience the $29 DB burger, which is, after all, a national curiosity. It's described on the menu as a "sirloin burger filled with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle." Some call it the best hamburger in the world; others call it an icon of excess.
When I picked the thing up, I discovered there was no way to get a grip on it with my teeth. DB Bistro may be French chef Daniel Boulud's low-end eatery, but it's still a pretty posh place. So before I squirted foie gras all over the white linen tablecloth, I summoned the waiter. "Do people eat this thing with their hands?" I asked him.
"Well, it depends on the dimensions of the mouth. I try not to look," he said with a smile. Then he whispered, "Most people do the best they can with their hands, but they usually end up with a knife and fork." I took his advice and ate the decadent combination of rare sirloin, fatty short ribs, livery foie gras and pungent truffles with utensils.
Boulud, a French chef who relocated to New York, was seeking to make a statement about American pop culture with his new restaurant. Thanks to the timing, his burger hit the publicity jackpot. Introduced a few months before 9/11 when the American economy was at its superheated height, the foie gras-stuffed burger became a monument to "irrational exuberance."
Oddly, 2001 was the same year that Eric Schlosser's indictment of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation, was published. According to Edge, Boulud's burger and Schlosser's book are the two extremes in America's "bipolar" relationship with the hamburger. Despite Schlosser's and the USDA's warnings, we keep looking for bigger, greasier, nastier burgers to satisfy our cravings.
Perhaps the possibility that a burger might kill us makes it more exciting, putting it in the same category as sex, drugs and motorcycles?
Boulud's foie gras-spangled burger sparked the national imagination. Restaurants in Miami, San Francisco and Minneapolis came up with their own expensive burgers. Burgers stuffed with aged Gouda, burgers stuffed with expensive mushrooms, and burgers made with Kobe beef began to appear around the country.
I figured Texans were immune to such newfangled silliness -- until I got to Athens and started sampling burgers at the 2005 Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off. Two of the top three burgers ranked in the cook-off, including the winner, were stuffed. Granted, the stuffing was pepper Jack, not foie gras, but the technique was more reminiscent of Daniel Boulud than Fletcher Davis.
Maybe the DB burger set us free. Or maybe the burger, in all its simplicity, just begs to be tinkered with.
The "tostada burger" at Chris Madrid's in San Antonio starts with a hamburger patty that's been whacked flat with a spatula on the griddle and cooked well done and crispy. The flattened patty is so wide, it overhangs the toasted roll on all sides. The oversize meat is then slathered with refried beans and layered with tortilla chips. Jalapeños are 50 cents extra but, in my opinion, indispensable. The crowning glory, and Madrid's trademark, is a mound of cheddar cheese melted on top of the burger, beans and chips until it flows over the edge of the patty and solidifies on the plate beneath it. What comes to the table looks like a cheddar cheese waterfall on a bun.
Chris Madrid's, a roomy Blanco Street icehouse and burger emporium, frequently ranks at the top of San Antonio "best burger" surveys. Although my basis for comparison was limited to the four San Antonio hamburger joints I made it to that day, Chris Madrid's was my favorite. I also sampled their "cheesy cheddar" burger, which was much like a tostada burger without the beans and chips.