Everything I Learned While Eating 330 Burgers in One Year
It’s over, friends. It’s all done. I have now completed my year-long Burger Quest, found the best burgers in America (read all about them here), and settled down for a long summer’s nap. But for some reason I can’t stop writing about it, partly because there's so much I couldn't share in the reviews and profiles I filed along the way, and also because I FEEL EMPTY INSIDE NOW THAT IT’S GONE.
But at some point I must write my final Burger Quest article, right? Maybe this is it! Either way, here's a behind-the-scenes breakdown of what went on logistically, physically, and even emotionally as I paraded around the country with my “burger critic” press pass in my fedora for an entire year.
Burgers are the American dining equivalent of the fire emoji
According to PBS, Americans eat three burgers a week, or 156 burgers a year (for context, the average American eats only 46 slices of pizza during the same period). That’s 50 billion burgers consumed in America each year. Forty percent of all sandwiches purchased in the US are hamburgers. The USDA says we eat 61lbs of hamburger meat per person. And we spend $14 billion on cheese JUST FOR BURGERS.
This year, I ate 174 more burgers than the average American
This is alarming and doesn't even factor in the 18 burgers I, for some reason, ate as a civilian. I was honestly a little bit worried I might die during the trip.
The time I actually thought I might die
I was in Cleveland on my seventh trip. By chance, I happened to get to The Land the day before their parade for winning the city's first major sports title since 1964. Lots of restaurants were shutting down to attend the festivities, which meant I had basically six hours to try nine burgers. The first five went down fine, but by the sixth, my mouth had become salty and dry, and I could feel the blood flow to my brain slowing. During seven, I could no longer follow other people’s conversations. By eight, I was breathing out of my nose to avoid vomiting. And on nine, I had my requisite three bites, then walked to the bathroom and threw up, as the sounds of boozy Clevelanders singing along to “Thunder Road” echoed in the background.
Sitting on the floor of Johnny’s Little Bar’s men’s room, I suddenly remembered I had to do this all over again in Pittsburgh the next day. And so I did what any self-respecting 35-year-old professional food critic would: I leaned against the toilet and cried.
I went to the doctor. Many times.
Because of these mortality worries, I got a complete physical evaluation before and after Burger Quest. And to be honest, it was a lot better than I thought it would be. I gained only 5lbs (from 186 to 191) and my cholesterol test scores were not altogether life-ruining:
As you can see, my triglycerides (fat found in my blood), “bad” cholesterol, and total cholesterol all went up, but according to my doctor, these were “relatively normal fluctuations" and I "will likely not die from this."
I had to alter my diet around the Quest
When I was home, I worked out more and avoided red meat (I honestly wanted nothing to do with red meat outside of these trips). And during the trip I tried to eat steel cut oatmeal and some sort of vegetables and do something physical before embarking on these crazy burger binges.
Also, I discovered that (perhaps obviously?) a bunch of food critics and TV personalities struggle with weight and depression issues, as evidenced by former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni’s Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater; a 1983 People magazine interview with another Times restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton, in which she talks about how she gained 45 pounds (“If your priority is being thin,” she says, “then you’ll never be a good reviewer.”); and of course former Travel Channel Man v. Food host Adam Richman’s Instagram meltdown after posting pictures showcasing a significant weight loss alongside pro-eating disorder hashtags (I should also note, however, current Times food critic Pete Wells claims he hasn’t really gained weight, but Pete Wells is a goddamn culinary sorcerer who may just exist in our minds).
I nearly joined Jenny Craig
Final thing about my health. During all of this, I was perusing the telenovelas when an ad for Jenny Craig came on. A woman named Sloane stood in a black dress enthusiastically attesting to the fact that she was proof Jenny Craig works because she lost 60lbs on the system. So I called the hotline number and spoke to a woman named “Chelsea” and told her all about what I’d done this year. She was quiet for like 20 seconds and then she did a very persuasive sales job trying to sell me on a meal plan and some counseling. And now she calls me every couple of days and leaves me messages following up, but I’m too much of a coward to tell her I don’t want to eat their broccoli & cheese stuffed potatoes and beef merlot. I guess the thing I learned is that “Chelsea” at Jenny Craig is very good at her job?
America's best burger cities are not (all) obvious
Outside of Manhattan (which is quite obviously strong), the best burger cities in America are Dallas and Washington, DC. Dallas makes sense because it's a cattle town and I once saw a 115 pound woman crush a 32oz porterhouse, drink three Bud Heavies AND THEN GO RIDE AND SUBSEQUENTLY DEFEAT A MECHANICAL BULL, but DC was more of a surprise to me. Maybe it’s just because people in DC are from all over the place and that mixture inevitably creates interesting, high-quality food? Or is it because DC is so fundamentally a lunch town, and having a good burger is one of the most essential parts of American lunch.
Basically, just an alarming anecdote
In Minneapolis, an Uber driver who was also a medical student (gig economy!) explained how he thought all of this red meat that my body couldn’t process was literally rotting in my stomach. And yet, Minneapolis happens to possess one of the most gut-busting (and mouth-scalding) styles of burger, the Jucy Lucy. Irony!
In Oklahoma, no one warns you about the wind
I learned (the hard way) that it’s really, really, really windy in El Reno, Oklahoma. And if you don’t eat at Robert’s Grill and learn the history of the Oklahoma-style onion burger while you’re there, you are a damn fool. A. DAMN. FOOL.
Speaking of Oklahoma, every burger lover needs to go there
Why? Because there is a man named Justin Nicholas, who runs a tiny place called Nic’s Grill, and eating at his original lunch spot on Pennsylvania Avenue is a right of passage for anyone who wants to understand anything about Oklahoma City. I’ve heard he now has a full-service restaurant (and good for him! I’m not sure what sort of business you can do with 17 seats just at lunch), but I hope he still mans the grill at the original Nic’s, as everyone in America should make a pilgrimage there at least once.
San Francisco has its own old-school burger style
It basically involves putting the burger on French bread or Dutch crunch and shaping it like the Jetsons car.
You can capture the essence of a burger in three or four bites
My rule was that I had to take at least three bites of every burger no matter how much I liked (or disliked it), but I tried not to take more than four for survival purposes. Those bites add up.
I’d judge the burger on four major elements:
A) The meat (What’s the char like? How salty? How pure is the flavor of the beef? Is the grind loose and hand-packed or snappy and tightly packed?)
B) The temperature (I ordered all burgers medium because a perfect medium is pink and still juicy)
C) The bun (Is it toasted? Is it fresh? Does it stand up to moisture? Too bulky? Too small?)
D) Overall composition (Is there too much acid from the mustard and pickles? Too much fat from meat and cheese? Too many toppings that make it “stunt-y”?)
Millennials' short attention spans make note-taking much easier
I could just write extensive notes on my cell phone because everyone is always on their cell phones anyway, and no one looks up and has conversations anymore because they’re too busy Instagramming pictures of fidget spinners they’d just had delivered via Amazon drone. ARGH, MILLENIALS, AMIRITE?!?! Please insert the rest of a Rick Reilly column here, for more crotchety hot takes.
Memphis has America's best dive bar
The best thing you can do in Memphis is get to Earnestine and Hazel’s on a Thursday before midnight, introduce yourself to bartender Karen Brownlee, and ask to get a tour of the upstairs (and then, eventually, order the Soul Burger).
The English language has many complex layers
I learned, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the term “all the way” can mean SO MANY DIFFERENT THINGS.
Wisconsin does not screw around when it comes to dairy fat
Spend a year eating burgers and you'll accrue some fascinating travel stats
I went to 30 cities.
I took 72 flights.
I rented 19 mid-sized sedans and 1 mid-size SUV WITH collision insurance.
I traveled roughly 70,000 miles.
I had one toy train in Kansas City deliver me a burger.
Burgers make for good bribery. To a point.
Almost all of my best friends suddenly liked me much more when I told them they could accompany me on this burger trip, and then, by the end, actually started to hate me because they insisted on NOT abiding by the three to four-bite rule.
Airbnbs are not always as advertised
When an Airbnb rental in East Nashville says it's “rustic” and “classic feeling,” it is not an ideal rental experience and you may end up sleeping on a bed that feels like it's stuffed with, as my friend Casey put it, “the carcasses of lightly de-quilled porcupines.”
Parental support has its limits
Airport fashion has its own aesthetic
Each city’s airport seems to have a different (fresh!) take on designing city-themed shirts, and many more of these than you could possibly imagine involve sequins.
You can learn a ton hanging out in bars
People in bars will truly tell you anything if you stick around long enough. Over the course of the year, while sitting around waiting for burgers, I learned that: A Pittsburgh server named Barbie posed in Playboy just to spite her ex-husband’s new girlfriend; a man also named Kevin sitting next to me at a burger joint in Seattle was acquitted for allegedly killing dogs “Mike Vick-style” because “juries are a finicky thing”; and that a man in Austin was, in 1987, living in Midland, Texas next to the house where “Baby Jessica” famously fell down a well and was trapped for 58 hours, and he believes it could’ve been a “hoax” for “publicity.”
We are still a highly germaphobic nation
Turns out, people you’ve just met will generally not accept food from you if it has bites taken out of it.
Burger nostalgia is a powerful force
It’s nearly impossible to beat the first burger you ever had in your life, especially when it's so inextricably linked to home.
In the end, taste trumps everything
Great burgers can beat nostalgia. And telling someone their burger is the best in America can make even a gruff Serbian-American former-college football player cry.