Food Diary: The First 5 Burgers of My Adulthood

A longtime vegetarian goes on an American hamburger Odyssey

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1. “Burger.” The Fainting Goat, Washington, D.C.

I don’t usually eat dinner after eight because I’m not European and I still consider myself a child, and yet I’m here. It’s 9:35 on a Sunday night in Washington, D.C. I’m playing with my napkin on the table in this darkened bar, staring at wallpaper that kind of reminds me of the dressing rooms at Victoria’s Secret, and I’m about to have my first hamburger in six years. My sister has to tell the waiter how I want the burger cooked, because when I suggest that it be medium-well, she just shakes her head in horror and grabs the menu from me, telling him that I’d actually just like it a solid medium. It’s been too long.

When the food makes its way to our tiny corner table, plated on what looks like artisanal wooden slats straight out of a Kinfolk magazine, my sister turns to me and asks if I am ready. I say I am as I poke at my sunburned shoulder, freshly toasted from our paddle-boating experience earlier that day in the Tidal Basin.

Woefully underprepared to be on a boat, we flashed hundreds of other tourists as we circled around the Lincoln Memorial while wearing skirts, blasting Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat. Paddle-boating, or any other form of outdoor physical activity, would normally be low on the list of Sarvady girl activities. But my sister is determined that I have a good time on this trip and is terrified that if she doesn’t plan every minute we are together, I will get bored.

Therein lies the difference between my sister and I. She is a planner, I am the Big Lebowski. I have always been the worse sister, known for borrowing sweaters and losing them, borrowing CDs and losing them, stealing sweaters and CDs and then, yes, losing them. I am scatter-brained, she is focused. She is introverted, if I don’t talk to someone every three hours Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” begins playing on loop in my head.

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Because my college starts four weeks later than any school ever should, I’ve decided to take a week-long excursion midway into this unfailingly lonely month visiting people I love: my sister, my high-school friends, my future roommate. In the past month, my sister has begun a new job in a new city, spending her free time meeting new people and exploring new neighborhoods. I have cleaned my closet and made movies of my dog dancing to music. By default, anything we do together is twenty times less boring.

So, we find ourselves at a trendy bar a few blocks away from Howard University filled with well-dressed people and nice cocktails at 9:35 p.m. not because we’re two wild and crazy gals enjoying city life, but whatever is the opposite of that. Our Sunday consisted of waking up at noon, eating Chipotle on the roof of her apartment, paddle-boating, eating raw cookie dough, taking a nap, then waking up in time to make it to a 9:15 dinner reservation. It was absolutely beautiful.

Our burgers come and I struggle to find adequate lighting for taking a photo of mine; the elderly man behinds me grows increasingly perturbed as I use the flash on my camera several times to get the right shot. My sister takes a picture of me taking my first bite. I am nervous and do it wrong. All I get is a mouthful of the potato bun and a little ketchup. Second try, I succeed. I smile. I don’t feel as bad about myself as I thought I would. I make notes on my phone that will prove to be very unhelpful when it comes time to write this piece: Juicy but not too juicy, simple, GOOD. I look up at her, already four bites deep into her own burger.

“It’s good,” I say. “It’s really good.”

We’re in agreement. And, in typical Sarvady girl fashion, we’re finished with our food before the perturbed man can even finish his drink.

2. “Shackburger.” Shake Shack, Paramus, New Jersey

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“No, Puh-ram-mus.”

My roommate is coaching me on the in and outs of New Jersey. I am learning. For instance: the Jersey shore isn’t just one place, but many. Seaside Heights is just what you see on MTV. This morning, we opted for the subtler town of Ocean Grove for our beach experience, devoid of stereotypical impurities because the beach has a substance-free policy and the town is known for being a mecca for religious travelers. I curse on the beach when sand flies in my book and I feel guilty, like the entire town has just witnessed by bad manners. I get another sunburn.

Later that night, we find ourselves in Puh-ram-mus, right off of Route 17, at the first ever Shake Shack in the Garden State. We’re with her mother and sister, whom I explain the whole burger-virgin thing to. No red meat since eighth grade after watching the documentary Food, Inc., vegetarianism for the past year and a half. But throw in a year of anemia, two flus, and six viruses and now I’m back to meat again. It plays out like a funny story. A girl who is just bad at being a vegetarian. I leave out the messier parts, the moral quandary of turning omnivorous, the fear of unhealthy food that seems to have been instilled in me since the Kale Revolution of 2012. Instead, we just toast with our burgers to trying new things and eating good food. And eat good food we do. The cheese is melty and hot, the bun is perfect and the hamburger patty is thin. I imagine that this is what a Krabby Patty would taste like.

“This,” I say with a full mouth, manners be damned, “is nice.”

My roommate and I order one caramel milkshake to go, which we finish later at her home while hanging out with her pet macaw, teaching it the words to “Uptown Funk.” New Jersey brings out the weird in me.

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3. “The Old Fashioned.” Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beers, Soho, New York.

Our party crams in at the end of the bar and I fling my backpack on the ground, rudely blocking part of the entry to the kitchen. I am living life now as a nomad, each night spent in a new part of the tri-state area, and all of my living essentials are in a stuffed black backpack with a fraying bottom and a zipper that threatens to break under all this pressure. We’re in Chelsea, a part of New York too cool for us, and almost as a reminder of how unworthy we are, the rectangular-shaped Black Tap Burger Bar can barely fit our party of three plus cargo. But we fit, albeit snugly, next to creative 20-somethings at the bar enjoying post-work drinks. My friend and I, both 19, feel like infants. Her father joins us from work and five minutes into this whole soiree and I already feel like I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve dragged two people across town to sit at a tiny bar filled with workers who are probably furious that my book bag keeps keeling over and spewing out its contents. A Parks & Recreation shirt with a photo of famous mini-horse Lil’ Sebastian and a plastic comb that I will later lose on the upstate commuter train make more than one guest appearance on the floor of Black Tap.

But our burgers finally come, and I don’t feel so bad anymore. As soon as the waiter places down my burger loaded with mushrooms, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and horseradish sauce. The Black Tap chefs have learned how to make the perfect medium, a level of burger that I am finally starting to understand myself. Pink, not too pink. Seems simple, and yet it isn’t. The burger is gone in less than 10 minutes (maybe under five if I’m being honest) and I don’t even take a moment post-meal to chastise myself for eating meat or dairy. The latter I pay for as I walk back to the subway writhing in lactose-intolerant pain.

That night my roommate and I watch the new Colbert Late Show on a pull-out couch in an apartment uptown. I think about how funny it is that less than a year ago I didn’t even know her. I make a mental note to consume less dairy and less meat in the next few days. The next day I go upstate and visit old friend, one whom which I used to bond in vegetarianism with. She has gone vegan. In solidarity, I order a portabello mushroom burger when we dine in her student union. It is good, but it dawns on me how strange it is that we call things that are not burgers, burgers. Mushroom is not a meat. Friday I head back into the city, Brooklyn, specifically, and I feel very square. I go to Paulie Gee’s, what I may dangerously call the best pizzeria in New York. I order a sausage and pepperoni pizza. So much for less dairy and meat. But I also don’t feel guilty. I am learning to love junk food again. I decide that this is a good thing.

4. “The Burger.” The General Muir, Atlanta, Georgia.

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My 13-year-old little sister got her first ever phone and she won’t stop looking at it. My mom is indifferent, but my dad is absolutely tickled (and I mean tickled, he’s a giggler, not a laugher) by our waiter, who keeps referencing Doctor Who even though no one in our family has seen the show before. I feel at home. Since its opening nearly three years ago, The General Muir has been the only place I’ve been so desperate to become a regular. The friendly Jewish vibes, the banana cake, the fact that the place has a simple slogan I identify so greatly with (“Eat something”)—all of these things make the upscale deli feel like a welcoming place. Within these wooden walls I’ve had birthdays, graduation celebrations and just regular Sunday dinners with the people that I love. It sounds sappy, because it is. To me, The General Muir is an essential component of my Atlanta.

Sitting with my family, on what will be one of the last night we spend together for months, things feel different. I’ve lived away from them for a year, I just had a trip that wasn’t with them or with a friend’s family but rather was my entirely my own. Nobody will remember it all but me.

My order here, for once, is finally different (sorry Stewed Lentils, I still love you). “The Burger” arrives and it will be another kind of first. Because stacked on top of the patty are two thick slices of pastrami. I’ve never had pastrami before, bad Jew that I am, but I’ve been told by my Catholic foodie friend that the pastrami is so good she could eat it every day.” I dig in. I decide pastrami is my new best friend. A legitimate feeling of sadness washes over me as I finish my meal. It’s over. This may be may favorite burger yet, but my judgement is probably clouded with hometown pride.

My father drives us home. I order a slice of banana cake to go, which I eat the entirety of in the car.

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5. “Double Double.” In-N-Out. Los Angeles, California.

It’s 6:40 on a hot Friday night in Los Angeles, and I am not ready. The regular bustle of In-N-Out fry cooks yelling “hot oil” and cashiers calling order numbers still startles me. Unpopular opinion: I do not like In-N-Out’s fries. My friend convinces me that I have to order them anyway, as they are “part of the experience.” The fries and Double-Double (“You can’t get a single patty,” she lectures me again, “A Double-Double is quintessential In-N-Out.”) only costs me $7 in total, which feels like a steal in LA.

At the table next to us, a couple holds up their respective burgers and takes a picture with their arms intertwined, as if they were holding up flutes of champagnes at their wedding, toasting to the future. True love. For In-N-Out burgers being possibly one the most Instagrammed meals in the world, I sure have a hard time taking a good photo of mine. I blame it on the florescent lighting and my laziness. I am tired of taking photos of burgers. I am tired of writing terribly unhelpful in-the-moment descriptions of burgers, descriptions like “Juicy!!,” which I will read weeks later and smash my head against my desk for. I am ready to enjoy this burger for what it is, not as a picture, not as a life-changing experience, but for a meal on this Friday night. I don’t think I’ll continue eating meat forever, but it’s what I’m going to do tonight in this restaurant with the exceptionally noisy fryer and the overwhelming scent of cooking oil. I get my burger. First bite. “Unpretentiously good,” I declare to my friend, haughtily sitting on my red plastic throne.

She just nods. She’s too busy eating.

Rebecca Sarvady is from Atlanta, Georgia and attends school in California. One time Wolf Blitzer cut her in the security line at the airport and she still hasn’t really gotten over that. You can follow her unsuccessful twitter here: @rebleeks.

Main photo by Simon Doggett CC BY