Sunday, January 11, 1998
White Castle's little burgers
a very big deal

The Cincinnati Enquirer

I am writing this from the back booth of a White Castle. If we had a scratch-and-sniff edition of the newspaper, you'd already know this.

Onions. You'd be smelling onions. The burgers are grilled on top of them, and the aroma is a takeout order everybody gets at no extra charge. It insinuates itself into your hair and clothes and lasts longer than the burgers themselves.

I like it. And I like White Castles.

In college, we ate them by the carload. Or, as we put it, ''Let's go pull the pin on some gut-grinders.'' Even those of us who love them are not exactly reverent. Making fun of them is part of the White Castle experience. Nobody takes them seriously.

Except for David Gerard Hogan.

A sackful of sliders

He is the world expert on the little belly-bombers, also affectionately known as ''sliders.'' A professor of history at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, he says the White Castle burger is an icon of American food, an important part of our culture. And here you just thought it was a really little hamburger on a really moist - some would say ''soggy'' - bun.

Mr. Hogan has written a scholarly book on the subject, Selling 'em by the Sack, which is interesting. But not funny. He doesn't even include my favorite White Castle joke:

A guy went into a White Castle and accidentally ordered a Quarter-
pounder. They gave him 500 burgers.

Or course, this is patently untrue. Not that you should expect a gigantic portion of beef. But you're probably eating too much red meat anyway. Besides, it looks bigger than it is, thanks to the ingenuity of a Cincinnati man who came up with the signature perforations.

The domino effect

The famous five holes bored into each burger was billed in 1951 as an innovation to cook the meat faster - in less than a minute - while allowing more of the oniony steam to permeate the bun. (Still leaving plenty for your clothes and hair.)

Actually, the burger patty was quietly downsized from 1 ounce to four-fifths of an ounce. Today, the company says that the weight of the 2 1/2-inch square is a trade secret.

This is not the point.

Nobody ever says, ''Boy, I'm in the mood for a burger. How about a White Castle?'' Castle-heads get hungry for White Castle burgers. Specifically. They are requested by servicemen overseas and homesick executive transferees.

Rosemary Clooney's wedding guests dined on them last year. NBC weatherman Willard Scott, the original Ronald McDonald, is a fan. They've been served in the White House and in soup kitchens.

The White Castle Web page says it is ''what you crave.'' Mr. Hogan says this is not the point either. ''White Castle was the original fast food, marketed by Billy Ingram, the Henry Ford of burgers.''

Mr. Hogan calls his book, published by New York University Press, ''a social history.'' It will cost you $24.95 to get this history lesson. You can get a White Castle burger for 41 cents.

''This is a uniquely American product,'' he says, ''catering to all classes of people.'' He says it unites us in our ''ethnicity'' and ''legitimized'' the lowly burger. But he was losing me by then.

I was having, well, a craving.

So, I am writing this from the White Castle on Reading Road in Avondale, where I stood in line with a nurse and a guy who works on a road crew.

My burger - no ketchup, no mustard, just pickle and grilled onion - tasted just like the one being served in Hamilton and Covington and Anderson Township. Just like it tasted the first time I had one. Good.

If you don't believe me, head to Borders Books on Princeton Road in Springdale at 2 p.m. Jan. 18. Mr. Hogan will be signing his book, and the company has promised free sliders to all - ''as many as you can eat.''

Borders will never smell the same.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.