Tuesday, September 20, 2011
The Best Hamburgers in the World
Casting about for a community fund-raiser, the Rotary Club of Watsonville decided to try running a hamburger booth at the Santa Cruz County Fair in 1969. The late Bill Lewis, who had, among other things, previously run a burger stand downtown, took the lead in putting it together, and so was born the Lewisburger.
Any object reduced to a level of utter simplicity can become a thing of beauty. The Lewisburger proves the point. It’s a patty topped with grilled onions and pickles on a toasted bun. Perfect. You can add cheese for a dollar more and put on mustard and ketchup from the dispensers at the side of the booth, but why would you? It would be like adding tail fins to a Porsche.
This year, for about the 20th time, I put in my customary four-hour shift in the hamburger booth. It was a slow shift, and our crew had a bit of time to talk about what makes the burgers special. One crew member, who had worked at a fast-food chain in the past said it was the quality of the meat, bought from a local meat locker. Others had their ideas; I have mine.
To begin with, the grill the burgers are cooked on probably has, even after cleaning, the residue of 30 years of grease on it. The patina is only burnished by repeated use, and by the final day of the Fair, the grill alone is giving every burger a turbo-powered flavor blast. Added to that, the salty-sweet taste of the onions and the tartness of the pickles combine to make an unforgettable taste experience. It’s a harmonic convergence, if you will.
Whatever the reason, the magic is there, and so are its followers. Many of our customers make a point of telling us that they’ve been coming for years and look forward to our burgers every time they come to the Fair. The general trend in sales is up (with variations, depending on Fair attendance and weather), and we get plenty of young customers, who we hope and expect will be the repeat customers of the future.
You can only get a Lewisburger during the six days of the County Fair, but after 43 years it has become something increasingly rare in today’s world: A tradition.
It’s a tradition not only for the Fairgoers, but for the members of the Rotary Club who work in the booth year after year. With about 90 people in the club, we count on everyone to work a shift. Our Rotarian work force is augmented by volunteers from the Boy Scout troop we sponsor and from one of the schools we adopt. Making it happen becomes a community effort.
And, as suggested earlier, it’s also a social experience. It helps cement a bond among members of a club that has been volunteering and raising money for the community since 1927. Most years I’ve gotten to work with at least one club member I didn’t know that well and always come away from the experience knowing him or her better.
For all the volunteer effort that goes into the hamburger booth, it’s not, owing to high overhead, as much of a profit center as many fund-raisers. We typically raise under $10,000 for local charities and nonprofits, and from time to time a board member will ask if the return is worth the effort. Those discussions never go very far. How, after all, do you put a dollar value on fellowship and tradition?