I order a Life Café Burger about once a week. To me as an older Englishman, the American Burger is an international icon and the Life Café version is a pretty good example.
The nearest thing we came to real burgers in the early sixties was watching Wimpy, the ever-famished character on the Popeye cartoons who suffered from perpetual burger lust, suck down another one, promising to re-pay the money he’d just hustled by Tuesday or Thursday. We kids, of course, knew he really meant never. Wimpy could eat his own weight in Burgers during the course of a cartoon and always got away Scott free.
“Wimpy” was also the name of a burger cafe in our northern town. A visit was something of a treat. It wasn’t overly styled as the American version, though they did do milkshakes and Coke and called chips “fries.” And they had revolving pedestal seats just like in the films. In fact, apart from cartoons, as a kid I had no real idea that the “Burger” was an American institution destined to take over the world!
The best thing about Wimpy’s though wasn’t their burgers; it was their bright colored ketchup and mustard dispensers which sat plump and heavy on the yellow Formica tables. It was risky but if you were clever, you could squeeze the ketchup bottle hard enough to make it blow little red bubbles, ketchup farts really; but get it wrong and you could erupt ketchup all over your mum’s new coat
Why I’m writing this is because as I sat at the bar of the café last night I was mesmerized by the chap next to me. He’d ordered the Life Burger and was very seriously and studiously, almost scientifically, applying a thick coating of ketchup to the under-side of the top half of the bun. Then carefully and skillfully he moved it in a rotational way watching closely as the thick red wave moved around glutinously within its circumference. I’d never seen anyone do that before; seems he had a personal thing going on, his little ritual before munching it down.
All you could do with a Wimpy’s burger in 1962 was see how far you could get the melted cheese to stretch in thin rubbery threads as you held the top of the bun aloft, like some hovering UFO. I could get it to stretch about a foot before the cheese cooled and went solid.
Now that I’m older and more aesthetically sensitive, I sit at the bar and see just how tall and elegant I can make my burger by piling up everything (except fries) onto the meat patty with the bun on top. I imagine it’s a design for a new building, or the leaning tower of tomato and onions. Then I sit back and marvel at my unique creation, just before it falls over.
(Written originally for the Life Cafe blog).