My eight-year-old daughter looked up from her menu and demanded for the millionth time in her life, "Daddy, what's your favorite food?"
She knew the answer, just as she knows my favorite color, favorite animal, favorite movie, favorite sport. And she knew exactly what I was about to order for lunch. She knew that there was no chance of me stopping at the Whately Diner on a Saturday afternoon and walking out of there without having my favorite.
"Sushi," I replied.
"Yum. But, no. You love sushi, but it's not your favorite," she said, emphatically.
"You hate cilantro!" she said, covering her eyes as if anguished by my silly lie.
"You're right. You're right. My real, real favorite is a New Orleans po'boy, with fried oysters on chewy bread with lots of onions and mayo."
"Nope. Not your favorite."
"Not your favorite."
"Cheese, mushroom and onion omelet with rye toast and French fries dipped in mayo."
She shook her head. "Not your favorite."
Thankfully the waiter interrupted our nonsense.
My daughter went for the grilled cheese and smiley fries, then gestured to me that it was my turn.
"I would like two cheeseburgers," I began. Across the table, my daughter stared intensely into my eyes, folded her arms across her chest, sat up straight and with a look of amused superiority that said "I've got your number, pal," lip-synced my instructions to the waiter: "Cooked medium rare with American cheese, dill pickles, onions and mayonnaise, please."
"Daddy," she said, when the waiter was out of earshot, "may I ask you a really important question? I've never asked you this before, OK? It's really, really important. I mean it."
"OK, shoot," I said, knowing full well what she was going to ask—for the millionth time in her life.
"Daddy, why are cheeseburgers your favorite food?"
I looked out the diner window and yawned contentedly. My little girl reached up to the jukebox—each booth in the diner has its own individual jukebox—and started fiddling with the buttons absentmindedly, then yawned contentedly.
"You're too young to know stuff like that," I finally replied. "My love of cheeseburgers? It's complicated. Mysterious. Maybe I'll tell you when you're older."
It is complicated, this fondness of mine for cheeseburgers. It's complicated because I don't particularly like hamburger. In fact, beef is probably my least favorite protein source unless it is heavily marinated or seasoned. Hamburger can be palatable in dishes like chili or American chop suey. I like it in meatballs, as long as it's mixed with onions and garlic and bread crumbs. But I prefer other meats—pork or chicken or turkey. To my palate, beef, and particularly hamburger, is bland. It is axiomatic that the healthier hamburger gets—that is, the less fat content it has—the blander it gets.
My love of cheeseburgers, then, is both counter-intuitive and highly discerning. I despise hamburgers, can't imagine why anyone would bother to slip a hunk of ground round in a bun with nothing but condiments and a vegetable or two to dress it up. I despise burgers made with lean beef. I despise burgers made so thick that they end up tough on the outside in order to get the inside medium rare—a more common practice in "fancy" restaurants than in places like the Whately Diner, which offer simple fare like cheeseburgers without apology.
Moreover, though my taste buds might yearn for the fatty goodness of a juicy, 70-percent lean burger topped with American cheese and slathered in mayo, I'm generally a healthy eater, trying my best to cook or order meals that are low in cholesterol, high in fiber and vitamins. I try to eat lots of so-called superfoods, such as broccoli and walnuts, and to avoid heavily processed foods, including breads made with bleached flour.
All that health consciousness goes out the window, however, when I have the chance to have a really good cheeseburger. And for good or for ill, there is no shortage of places in the Pioneer Valley to find really good cheeseburgers.
At the top of my local list sits a relatively new establishment. Local Burger, located at the corner of Pearl Street and Main Street in Northampton, comes closest of any restaurant I've found to making my Platonic ideal of the perfect cheeseburger. Using top-quality beef—I gravitate back and forth between the grass-fed and the Angus beef—and fresh but not particularly fancy buns, Local Burger achieves greatness by getting the proportions just right. In my view, Local Burger takes a great risk in making its burgers as thick as it does—about double the size of most other places on my list of favorites—but by increasing the patty's circumference proportionately, cooking the meat carefully to maintain consistency in the chewing and using high-quality cheese and other toppings, the restaurant serves up what is nothing less than a masterpiece.
Almost all of my other favorite locally available burgers are made thinner, some using frozen patties. (At home on the grill I invariably use the best-quality frozen patties I can find.) While not as ambitious or as specialized as Local Burger, all the places on my list offer truly tasty burgers.
The Whately Diner is on the list, right up there with the burgers at Tom's Long Dogs, a roadside stand also in Whately. The cheeseburgers at the Sugarloaf Frostee in Sunderland have been attracting me back for an alfresco snack on summer evenings for the last decade. In the winter, I get my fill of fantastic cheeseburgers in the lodge at Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont.
There's a good reason why White Hut in West Springfield wins the Advocate's Best of the Valley readers' poll year after year. For the modest price of $2.35, the family-owned restaurant delivers, pound for pound, the best cheeseburger value anywhere. Teo's in Pittsfield gives White Hut a run for its money in the value department, serving up a quarter-pounder—a thin and delicious quarter-pounder—for $2.40.
While I favor the diner approach to burgers and harbor some resentment toward restaurants that attempt to elevate such humble fare to gourmet status by, for example, using gorgonzola in place of American cheese (cheddar or provolone being the only acceptable alternatives, and barely so), there is one place where I'm willing to overlook my rule against thicker burgers. The Northampton Brewery makes a great bacon cheeseburger, a bit bigger than my ideal, but very nice with a cold beer and a side of spicy fries.
A final thought: while there is much criticism leveled at fast food chains like McDonald's and Burger King, I don't think there's a better value available in the cheeseburger category than the McDouble, the double cheeseburger on McDonalds' dollar menu (available at all stores in Massachusetts except those on the Mass Turnpike, where the chain's special pricing gives new meaning to the term "highway robbery"). While the golden arches will never achieve the sublime scrumptiousness of any of the cheeseburgers on my list of personal favorites, the chain could teach some of the high-end joints that nick you 10 bucks for a burned-on-the-outside, raw-on-the-inside catastrophe a few lessons.