The Glorious Triumph of The Hamburger

When old friend Rick Vanderpool asked me to write a short piece for his Texas Hamburger Book, the first person who came to mind was Hester Hooten. I recall that Hester worked with my mother in the lunchroom at West Delta School when I was very young. She was always jolly and one of the kindest adults I knew. She covered my ears once when she was telling Mother a story that included the words “cow pattie.” Yes, she was that nice. I wasn’t nearly as innocent as she believed, of course.

When my father was very ill in Janes Hospital in Cooper, I remember Mother sending me to Silman’s on the square to get myself a hamburger. I remember Hester cooking there, too. She knew about Daddy’s critical condition and I could see the sympathy in her eyes as she cooked a burger just the way I liked, always making cheerful conversation while she worked.

Now that Vanderpool’s book is in print, I wonder if I somehow transported Hester to Silman’s, because that is where I needed her to be. Maybe somebody else cooked for me there, but I hope not.  Here’s what I wrote for Vanderpool’s book.

On hamburgers . . .

Cowboys, they say, like their beef with the hair still on and the hide barely singed. I think that’s a myth. Most cowboys I know like their beef cooked until it’s done. They see enough blood during the day and don’t want to see it on their plates or soaked into hamburger buns. I like my hamburgers old-fashioned and well-done. Old-fashioned to a lot of folks means greasy. Not to me.

Old-fashioned is the way they cooked them at Silman’s Grocery on the square in Cooper, Texas. That long-gone grocery store had a hamburger counter with stools. A boy just tall enough to see over the counter could watch Hester Hooten put together a masterpiece. She could make you feel as if she was making one-of-a-kind just for you.

You could watch her shape the patty with her hands and roll it out with a rolling pin so that the edges were ragged. She always left it sort of loose so it could cook all the way through. She put a large pat of butter (sometimes made at home) in a big cast-iron skillet and let it bubble before dropping the patty in.

Flames shot up and that wonderful smell started to work on your taste buds.  While chopped onions cooked in a smaller skillet, she let the patty simmer up real good as she mashed it down and flipped it with a metal spatula until it was just right. Not too greasy, not too dry.

She poured off the grease, and then dropped a little more butter in the skillet to toast both halves of the bun on both sides. While it was still in the skillet, she put the patty on the bun and covered it with chopped lettuce (not big chunks), chopped farm-fresh tomatoes (not slices), and the fried onions. Pickles were optional. (I declined). She coated one half of the bun with just the right amount of mustard and topped off the perfect burger.

It was still almost too hot to handle when she wrapped it in paper thin enough to see through and put it in my hands. It was just flat enough to allow a small boy to take a bite without opening too wide and risking tomato juice dripping down his chin. I can still taste those crumbly, burned-just-the-right-amount-around-the-edges burgers.

Jim Ainsworth is author of Go Down Looking.

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