When I say I’m the world’s greatest cook, I don’t mean chef. The word “chef” reminds me of some character in The Marx Brothers Hang Out at the Ritz: “Ze soufflé! You haf make it go fall. I spit in the potage of your mother!”
Also, I don’t mean I’m a cook like Richard Simmons or Graham Kerr or any of those other 87-cent phonies you see chopping cauliflower and harping about nutrition on TV. I don’t cook anything I wouldn’t personally eat, and I’d rather eat a boiled tennis ball than cauliflower. Some other things I don’t eat are zucchini, mushrooms, bananas, and anything amandine. I also don’t eat mayonnaise (Miracle Whip is okay) or put ketchup in my coffee. As for nutrition, I can look at my belt size and tell that I get more than my share. Nutrition is something you worry about in East Calcutta or maybe Detroit.
My taste buds were educated during World War II, when America traveled on its stomach. Arlington, where I grew up, was still a country town, a couple of stop-lights between the Liliard Hog Farm and the Eastern Star Home. My family enjoyed cooking, especially my daddy and my granny, and I enjoyed watching them because the kitchen was the most gregarious room in the house. Long after supper the family used to sit around the kitchen table, talking about Roosevelt and ration stamps and the day to come when butter would again be yellow. Well-being was a tub of iced beer, a bowl of chile peppers, and a pot of red beans simmering on the back burner. Daddy taught me to revere the lowly legume and respect the violent chile, and to keep both handy. Granny taught me to wring the necks of chickens and singe off the pinfeahers, and to appreciate green onions, which cure colds, and zinc oxide, which cures everything else, and to abide by the cryptic message of Roy Acuff and the Great Speckled Bird.
You could tell the days of the week around our house by what was on the kitchen table. Roast beef and chocolate pie, it must be Sunday. Monday was roast beef hash. Tuesday was ham with hominy. Wednesday might or might not be meat loaf. Late in the week we’d have what was called BBF (balance brought forward), which was whatever was left over, done with considerable imagination. Saturday night was spent at the counter of Mrs. Douglas’ tiny cafe, a little greasy spoon beer joint across the tracks from Southern Ornamental Iron Works, watching that splendid little lady cook burgers.
I loved to play the pinball machine and filch corners of beer from the bottles of Grand Prize consumed in heroic numbers by the factory workers who gathered to play dominoes. Miz Doug’s hamburger secret, which became mine, was to use second-issue meat—not the pale brown stuff that looks like dirty Crisco, but not the bright red stuff either. Medium-priced meat that sizzles the second you splat it on the hot, well-seasoned grill, that’s what she used. Everything must be sliced thin—the tomato, the onion, the pickle—and the meat patties should be pounded thin, too. Sour pickles only, please, and tomatoes that are slightly overripe. The lettuce should be loose leaf, the bun thin and small. The bun is grilled face down along with the meat, making use of the drippings, and in the final stages it’s burned slightly on the top side. The warm bun is then stacked on top of the sizzling meat and pressed down with one final slap of the greasy spatula. This final slap and sizzle is a matter of faith.
So is the manner in which the hamburger goes together. First, slather one half of the grilled bun with a lot of mustard. Lay on the lettuce, then