I work in New Haven, Connecticut. It is a smallish city – just a bit over 100,000 people. The downtown, though decimated by years of decay and neglect, is starting to show some bright spots, including restaurants and residents.
Yale University shares land with New Haven – not much else.
For a small city, New Haven has a lot of history. Our current president was born here (though he hides it well – claiming to be a Texan). He and his predecessor went to school here. The cotton gin, first assembly line using interchangeable parts, telephone switchboard and phonebook, Erector Set and Lionel trains all originated in New Haven.
However, if you were to ask a native New Havener which first was most important… it would be none of those. That’s because New Haven is the birthplace of the hamburger.
How weird is that?
There’s a legend… and it’s probably true… but I’ll leave that to the proprietors of the place where I had dinner tonight, Louis Lunch.
Louis’ (pronounced Louie’s) is a tiny place, so well hidden that I had driven by it hundreds of times over the last 20 years and had never seen it! The walls are brick. The booth I sat in was minuscule with carving on the wooden table (the same kind of carving often left by students on their schoolroom desks). Sitting against the outside wall I easily felt a cold draft against my legs.
The action at Louis’ takes place behind the counter, where burgers are broiled vertically, over an open flame, in three cast iron grills. The grills themselves are ancient – actually dating from the 1890’s!
You can have onions, cheese and tomato, but no ketchup! No French Fries either. At Louis’ it’s their way or no way, and that includes toast, not a bun.
There are two reasons Louis’ is still around. First, it’s the burger, of course. It is unbelievably tasty. Second, and more important, Louis’ is an anachronism. In this Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Amazon.com world, Louis’ operates without consultants and accountants and p.r. flacks. There aren’t rounding errors or spoilage. Each individual burger counts.
I’m amazed it took me 20 years to get there.
Blogger’s note: I have no clue where, when, or even whether to use an apostrophe when referring to Louis’. If you’re an etymologist, my apologies in advance.