Unlike most places from your childhood, the White Hut does not simply exist as a nostalgic bookmark shoved like a placeholder into your consciousness, waiting to inevitably disappoint you when you revisit it years later and find your childhood tastes bullshit, and your haircuts embarrassing. Despite one of the literal parts of my current job being tasting burgers, it continues to be one of the best I’ve ever had (and it’s not just me; in his 2014 book, The Hamburger: A History, the late Josh Ozersky named the Hut to his “10 burgers you must eat this year” list.)
The Hut burger is thin and griddled in that classic diner style. The cheese they use is white American, and the onions take on sort of peppery, buttery form when cooked (also, maybe from butter and pepper). The bun is thin, seedless, and doesn’t interfere. They offer up all sorts of classic fixings, but you -- and I can’t stress this enough -- need not ruin your White Hut burger with lettuce, tomato, or anything else. Some burgers are made to be sandwich stackers, to look like some sort of circular food Jenga when you’re done. The White Hut burger is not one of those. You barely need to put ketchup on it. Just get two cheeseburgers with fried onions and (maybe) ketchup, sit at the damn counter, read the Springfield Republican, and ask directions to Elk Lodge #61. Some things in life need not be made more complicated.
“There are millions of people from Springfield,” my grandfather liked to say. “But none of them live here now.”
The city of Springfield, on the other hand, is a complicated story, though not an unfamiliar one. Founded on four bluffs where several different rivers connect, it’s known as “the city of firsts” for producing (among other things) the first American musket, American-English dictionary, horseless car, vulcanized rubber, inventing basketball, then making Travis Best good at basketball, and casting him in He Got Game with my second favorite player, Ray Allen. During the 19th and mid-20th century, it also used to be the insurance hub of the US. And then it went to shit.
The Springfield Armory decommissioned in 1969, most of the insurance businesses were absorbed and moved out (though MassMutual stubbornly remains), and Springfield fell off, with white flight to the suburbs, and increases in crime and unemployment. It is the story of 50 second and third tier US cities, the ones that didn’t quite make the jump, but that sameness doesn’t make it any more or less sad or true. And now saying you’re from Springfield usually doesn’t mean you’re from Springfield, but Agawam, or Chicopee, or East Longmeadow, Wilbraham or Westfield. And when you’re actually from Springfield, no one believes you. I’ve watched my dad encounter this several times. It goes like this:
Guy in Polo shirt: Where are you from?
Dad: Western Mass.
Polo: Oh, I know Western Mass. Whereabouts?
Polo: Where around Springfield? Longmeadow?
Dad: Springfield. In the city.
Polo: You grew up in Springfield Springfield?
Dad (with a kind of weary resignation): I did.
Polo (... after twenty seconds of awkward silence): Oh.
By the time I was in college in Hartford in the early 2000s, Springfield was reeling. According to City-data.com, the violent crime rate in 2001 was 1,135 incidents per 100,000 people, four times the national average. Three years later, Springfield residents -- tired of the lack of progress and corruption -- chose to elect Charlie Ryan as mayor of the city, 42 YEARS after he beat my grandfather in 1962 by a couple hundred votes. In Springfield, history repeats itself, and more often than most places, it’s still using the same cast of characters.
A Brief History of the White Hut
In the early 1930s, Hy Roberts owned a hot dog stand in Springfield called the White Hut. But, like so many eager entrepreneurs, Hy actually just wanted to be a cigar salesman, so he asked his buddy from Benny’s Delicatessen, Edward Barkett, if he’d like to buy it for $300. Edward said, “Yes, let me just borrow that from the banks,” but the banks were all like, “You do realize this is the Depression, right?”, except one bank, which maybe hadn’t yet realized it was the Depression and lent him the money.
Barkett bought property at 280 Memorial Ave, proceeded to build the Hut out to 600sqft, and ran it until the '60s, when his son Edward H. took it over until the '90s. In 2000, Edward’s son EJ bought the Hut from him, and made a few changes, including adding fries to the menu for the first time in 61 years*, and two new locations. Other stuff has happened since then, but these are the things you need to know now.
*A real phone conversation with my grandfather, October 2000:
Me: Hi grandpa.
Grandpa: Put Kevin on the line. It’s his grandpa.
Me: Hi grandpa. What’s up?
Grandpa: Who is this?
Me: It’s Kevin.
Grandpa: You sound like a girl.
Grandpa: The White Hut has fries now! What kind of crazy hippie shit are they trying to pull?