New Haven, Birthplace of the Burger

New Haven is the birthplace of the hamburger. Apparently, this distinction has been codified by the Library of Congress. More specifically, as every New Havenite knows, it all started at Louis' Lunch in 1900, five years after that place opened its doors.

Over the course of 113 years, the hamburger has evolved from a simple ground beef sandwich into perhaps the most recognizable icon of American cuisine. However, Louis' inability to grow alongside the baby that it birthed has earned this Crown Street eatery more than its share of detractors. In fact, if you Google the place, you will find a large number of comparisons between Louis' Lunch and the "Soup Nazi" from the 1990s sitcom "Seinfeld," partly from the absence of real buns but mainly from this establishment's institutionalized stance against ketchup.

Clearly, banning ketchup is a highly controversial move for a hamburger place. It's enough to make the unsuspecting patron want to run screaming to the nearest Burger King, order a BK Veggie with extra ketchup and request that the proceeds go to funding the mansion and yacht of Secretary of State John Kerry, who married into the Heinz family fortune.

But as you sit there wearing that paper crown and eating your hamburger-free hamburger, it will hit home that the ketchupless burger is, like the veggie burger, just one of the thousand points of light that make this country great. Who cares if they act like fascists at Louis'? That's the beautiful irony of a free country, that a restaurant can write its own rules because we are free to take our business elsewhere. There are restaurants and other businesses run by Scientologists, Polygamists and Moonies. There are human resource orientations where pitchers of Kool-Aid are flashed at the new hires on PowerPoint slides, and that's okay because this is America, dammit.

Joseph Rodriguez, the born-again Pentecostal owner of a McDonald's on Whalley Avenue, mind-tricks the mayors of New Haven and the surrounding towns every January into showing up on a Sunday, in disguise — they're dressed as wise men — and passing out presents to little children for a Three Kings celebration. It will be cool this coming January to see what the city's next mayor will look like in a fake beard.

Twelve years ago, when "freedom fries" was the word on everyone's lips, it might not have sat right with some people to order a burger with blue D' Auvergne cheese and a side of "frites" like they have on the menu at Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro on Whitney Avenue. But today, folks in the burg that gave birth to the burger are self-confident enough to embrace our inner Frenchness. Or we can choose to go all Dutch on our Caseus burger with some one-year-old Gouda, or bring it back home to New England with the option of some Vermont cheddar.

Clearly the boutique burger trend has not only gone mainstream; the hamburger has made the great leap forward from static foodstuff to a medium through which we express our aspirations, our politics and our most evolved selves, both as individuals and as a highly diverse nation. Just a few years ago, reading "Painted Hills grass fed beef" in the menu description might have come off as a bit hippified, but today it evokes amber waves of grain.

Even in 2013, there are still those who view bacon and pineapple on a pizza as a defilement, but when it's the Maui Burger at Prime 16, and it's grilled pineapple and Applewood smoked bacon, it seems as American as an Elvis movie. You want bacon and egg on your burger? That's not a problem at Christy's Irish Pub on Orange Street, and what's more American than an Irish pub, right?

Freedom of choice is all fine and good, but the true test of that freedom is when things get pushed to disturbing extremes, when they get carried to the point where most people start thinking fondly of blue laws. Dr. Randy Laist, an expert on American popular culture who has spent his life in and around New Haven, evaluated Louis' burgers in an email interview with the Advocate. In his responses, Laist literally put his finger on why a bun-less-ness burger seems downright unnatural:

"Hold your hand out in front of yourself," Laist instructs. "Relax your grip and let your fingers fall into their most natural configuration. You will notice that your fingers naturally fall into a reverse-mold of a hamburger bun. Your fingers curl into the shape of the domed upper bun, and your thumb sticks flat out in a way that corresponds perfectly with the flattened lower bun. This effect is redoubled when you hold out both hands in the same posture with the fingertips facing each other, as if you were holding one large hamburger. This is the true essence of the hamburger, the key to its adaptability, and the source of its popularity as the cornerstone of American cuisine."

There you have it. It's all about the bun, according to Laist. "If you consider all of the variations on the hamburger — veggieburger, turkey burger, moose burger, pizza burger, doughnut burger, etc. — the bun is what they all have in common. The filling is incidental," he continues, "the bun is what differentiates a burger from a mere sandwich, which lacks a burger's perfect ergonomic hand-appeal."

It is no coincidence that the hamburger, with its modern flying saucer-like bun, rose to its plateau of popularity around the same time that Jack Kerouac was defining the essence of America with his gonzo novel On the Road. "The hamburger bun is perfectly designed for maximum portability," wrote Laist in an email to the Advocate. When you nosh on a Voodoo Burger at Rudy's on Chapel Street, with its deep fried jalapenos and Creole cream cheese, and start unconsciously humming "City of New Orleans" under your breath, you'll realize that the hamburger has maintained its preeminence as our national food because it has morphed from being road food into a culinary road trip.

But the ultimate American burger is the essence of perfection, which takes us to a more transcendental destination. It exists only in our deepest man-fantasies (or mantasies) like the giant fish that got away, that garden we've got to get ourselves back to, or an out-of-reach happiness such as that hawked by Harold Hill in The Music Man. New Haven's most famous foodie, Faith Middleton, describes it to a T-bone:

"Some of the best burgers on the planet, the kind where the juice runs down your arm when you bite into them, are at a no-name bar," she wrote the Advocate in an email. "Seriously, it has no name, and is packed with fire and police officers." Where is this Burger Brigadoon? The radio hostess placed it at "Nicoll and State."

Middleton's words create a physics-defying dilemma, given the fact that Nicoll and State Streets never intersect each other. Her perfect burger joint is a will-o'-the-wisp like that elusive Island from the Sci-Fi television series "Lost" — a LostBurger. Fortunately, Dr. Laist happens to be an expert on that particular show, having edited the volume Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series. He said that Middleton could very probably have been experiencing a "flash-sideways" in the time-space continuum when she enjoyed that juicy burger.

We're pretty sure she meant the Contois Tavern at 152 Nicoll St., which does have a name, although you wouldn't know it if you didn't know. Word on the street is Contois' burger is a to-die-for, yet well-kept secret. Somebody please check it out and get back to us.


A stack of three mini cheeseburgers from Plan B Tavern. (Cloe Poisson/Hartford Courant photo)