Hello, Mike. Cool site.
I write for a newspaper in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California and I'm trying to do a story on the history of the cheeseburger. Saw your observations and I'd love to chat. If interested, could you give me a ring. I'd ask you to E-back, but this is the account for the entire newsroom and things can get a little bogged down here.
|By Evan Henerson STAFF WRITER
It's been 73 years since grill chef Lionel Sternberger at the Rite Spot restaurant in Pasadena attached cheese to ground beef and made sure Jimmy Buffett would have something to chomp on and warble about during his stay in Paradise. The cheeseburger, baby. A Pasadena invention.
That's right, SoCal burgermeisters. You already know you can claim the Big Mac (McDonald's began as a hot dog stand in San Bernardino), the Big Boy (thank you, Bob Wian formerly of Glendale), and of course Baldwin Park's own In-N-Out Double Double. The hamburger museum may be In Seymour, Wis., but when it comes to burgers, nobody fries, steams, grills or flame lands quite like California.
But on Friday, designated National Cheeseburger Day by the American Dairy Association, fire up the grill, break out the condiments, and hoist your messy monster skyward. Raise a glass to Sternberger inventor of the "aristocratic hamburger with cheese, " the very first: cheeseburger...
If you believe the lore.
Jeffrey Tennyson does. In conducting research for his 1995 book "Hamburger Heaven, the Illustrated History of the Hamburger," (Little, Brown Publishers, $15) Tennyson said he interviewed former restaurant employees who confirmed that the Rite Spot is where the cheeseburger debuted although it was called the cheese hamburger.
"The person who corroborated this information for me is no longer Alive," said Tennyson, who lives in Los Angeles. "I think I came across one other place that claimed to have originated it. I stand by this one." Jim Heimann, conducting research for a book on California architecture, discovered an article in Pacific Coast Record, which covered the restaurant industry. That article, dated August of 1937, recounted how Sternberger rejuvenated a newly purchased roadside burger stand, the former Hinky Dick, at 1500 W. Colorado Blvd., located on historic Route 66 just before the entrance to Eagle Rock.
By throwing a piece of cheese on his burger, Sternberger started drumming up serious business. He later expanded the Rite Spot and opened locations in Highland Park and Glendale. The restaurant was later purchased by the operators of Henry's.
The relocated Rite Spot now the site of Louise's Trattoria - closed in 1993 and seems to have reaped mom attention for its mural satirizing Pasadena City Hall (remember "City Hell') than for any cheeseburger lore. Let's face it: it doesn't take a Wolfgang Puck to throw a couple of tasty ingredients together. But if you're going to lay claim to the Cheeseburger Founder title label and all you better have proof. Forget about apple pies, Chevrolet and baseball, you can't get more American than the cheeseburger.
Mike Juhre, who works for an insurance holding company in New York and operates the web site cufturefreak.com, became convinced of the cheeseburger's pop cultural significance during the time he spent living in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1994.
"In the Midwest, cheeseburgers were just everywhere," said Juhre, "roadside stands, TV ads, diners, everywhere. It was like my flag of the United States of America."
Culturefreak.com, which Juhre describes as a "fun-filled critique of late 20th century consumer culture" contains 29 references to the cheeseburger. A recent entry is an article from Brandweek magazine displaying the results of Chef America research on fast food. Think the cheeseburger is the ubiquitous fast food? In fact the product is third fastest selling fast food item, outsold by pizza and...get this, the ham and cheese sandwich. Outsold by ham and cheese? Lionel Sternberger would be spinning in his grave.
Don't mention Mr. Sternberger or the Rite Spot to burger lovers in Denver or Louisville, Ky. Current and former restaurateurs in those two cities claim it was their little spot that placed the cheeseburger on the map in the early 1930s. What's more, they say they've got the proof.
At the site of the now defunct Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In in Denver (known in its hey day simply as "the Barrel" because of its shape) sits a 3 foot granite monument. 'On this site in 1935, Louis E. Ballast created the cheeseburger" it reads. According to research conducted by the Colorado Historical Society, Ballast was a high school dropout who worked at a furniture store and bought the Barrel at age 20. During slow times, he tinkered with ways to spruce up the basic hamburger trying, among other things peanut butter and even do NOT try this at home melting a Hershey bar over it.
One day, his decision to place a slice of American cheese on the burger seemed to please his customers, who were willing to fork out 25 cents for the new product. Clearly sensing that he had a worthy invention on his hands, Bailast went to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office on March 5, 1935 to file an application to register the trademark of the word "cheeseburger."
Ballast's son, David, still has the trademark application, but he says his father was never able to ensure that the exclusivity rights to the term were ever enforced in Colorado or anywhere else. "He didn't know what the procedure was and he couldn't t follow up to keep other people from using the word," Kid David Ballast who worked at the Barrel when he was 13.
Regardless, the Barrel hung a sign that read "home of the original cheeseburger" which remained until the drive-in closed in 1974. And for the record, the Louis Ballast cheeseburger included sweet relish, a secret sauce, shredded lettuce and a toasted bun.
At Kaelin's restaurant in Louisville, they scoff at the very mention of Ballast and the Barrel. OK, so they don't exactly scoff. Kaelin's employees are far too friendly. But restaurant owner Irma Ruche says it was her parents, Carl and Margaret Kaolin who really invented the cheeseburger. Remember the old Reeses Peanut Butter Cup commercials? The ones that showed a klutz holding a chocolate bar barreling into a doofus with a jar of peanut butter thereby discovering "too great tastes that taste great together?" Well, the marriage of burger and cheese was almost as happenstance, says Raque.
Margaret Kaelin, an outstanding cook her daughter says, was throwing together some lunch for her husband, the founder of Kaelin's. As she was frying up burgers with one hand, she was holding a few slices of American cheese, left over from the children's lunches, that she meant to put away.
Carl took one look at the two items and decided to add a little spice to his life...er lunch. "He said, 'Margaret put a little cheese on those hamburgers and let's see what it looks like,' " said Raque who runs Kaelin's Restaurant with her son. "He liked how it tasted. Then she said, 'I believe I'll try that, too.' " The lunch crowd that arrived at Kaelin s that day agreed that Carl and Margaret were on to something, with their burger with cheese. But the creation would need a name. One of the customers suggested "Kaelin's Cheeseburger."
The Kaelins never went for patents, but their souvenir menus encouraging customers to "Try Kaelin's Cheese, burgers...15 cents...You'll like 'em" show the invention being offered in 1934.
Then as now, the Kaelin's cheeseburger is fried up in an iron skillet with plenty of grease. The bun is toasted and buttered and the cheese is Kraft American.
In 1990, TV news stations in Louisville and Denver staged a contest pitting Kaelin's and the Barrel against each other for cheeseburger-invention boasting rights with Kaelin's emerging victorious. (The Rite Spot wasn't in the running). Raque and Ballast say the debate was and still is all in good fun ... and both stand by their claim that thanks to their parents' invention, the world is a tastier and more caloric place.
(Culture Freak note: if you enjoyed this, you may enjoy Matthew Frederic Davis Hemming's Death By Cheeseburger.) n, the world is a tastier and more caloric place.