Faith, Medium Rare

By Randy Gragg July 23, 2009 Published in the August 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Fox

My earliest hamburger ritual began in the mid-1960s, when the first McDonald’s opened in my hometown of Reno, Nevada. Once every month, my dad’s shift-work rotation hit the swing hours of 4 p.m. to midnight, and for a week, my mom was set free from serving suppers sharply at 6 p.m. At least once during the cycle of seven blissful unscheduled evenings, we would drive to the glowing yellow arches to order a Big Mac, fries, and a shake.

Whatever loyalty I felt for McDonald’s ended soon after I started working there at the age of 15. The military-style conformity behind every ingredient and process acted like fertilizer on the teenage employees’ sprouting urges to improvise and break the rules, whether that meant adding unprescribed ingredients to the menu or, in my case, talking too much to the bun girl while I was manning the neighboring meat grill. (I was fired.)

Believe it or not, I continued consuming Big Macs into my 20s, though the ritual was recast in newly ironic terms: after spending days eating salami and gorp on hiking trips in the Sierras, my friend Tom and I would head to the first McDonald’s we could find. What could be a more fitting punctuation to our blissful mountain high, we reasoned, than a big, juicy bite of the sordid, corporatized world. Extra “special sauce,” puh-leeze.

During a long stretch of singlehood in my early years in Portland, my burger ritual moved to Sundays at the Blue Moon Tavern & Grill, and later the bar at Zefiro, where the magnetic draw of the sandwich was matched only by that of the waitresses who served it.

In short, at key moments in my life, whether accompanied by my mom, a buddy, or my distant desires, a burger has often been there, providing the deeply atavistic comfort of munching on warm food held in both hands.

By having the hubris to select only 10 top burgers in Portland, we invite controversy. Everyone has a fiercely defended favorite. But before you read our choices (based not so much on emotion as on, of all things, taste)—and before you go to our website to vote for your favorite or send us an e-mail scolding us for having missed the best one—think about how much of the experience of eating a burger really concerns what’s between the buns, and how much has to do with the moment’s wider connection to time, space, and people. As Robert Reynolds, the city’s chef of chefs, puts it, “Burgers are like a religion.”

These days, I receive my burger sacrament in the company of my excellent friend Mike. We talk and chomp, bun, burger, and condiments blurring together as casually as the subjects of our conversation: art, history, politics, experience—the latter usually linked to our friends, former girlfriends, life partners, or (when trying to figure out why we so doggedly continue to be the way we are) our dads. Most of the time, we go either to the 5th Quadrant or Slow Bar, depending on who prefers the shorter bike ride home. In my opinion, Slow Bar’s burger is far tastier, but in the end, either one is just fine. The burger is merely the scripture, its calligraphy sometimes beautiful, sometimes plain; we are the interpreters.

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