A Hamburger by Any Other Name

The origin of the hamburger is contested. This project documents the style of hamburger popular in of the lower Tennessee Valley states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. While these varieties, known in Mississippi as slugburgers or doughburgers, are new to many audiences, the tradition is rooted in the early twentieth century. One arguable origin point is World War I, when the federal government promoted rationing red meat at home to reserve supplies for fighting abroad in Europe.[1]

Extended with soymeal grits, flour, oatmeal, and other fillers, cooks today dress them with cheap and abundant condiments like mustard, chopped raw onion, and sometimes pickles. The style is known by many names and defined by various ingredients.

Some, taking note of the cafes that made the style famous, call it a Weeksburger, a Dub’s burger, or a Pennburger. Others refer to it as a slugburger, doughburger, cerealburger, or potatoburger. It’s also known as a fillerburger or mysteryburger, At some counters, it’s merely called a hamburger or an old-fashioned.

Jacobs--SingleSlugonLine

According to Booneville, Mississippi native Willie Weeks, (who owns Weeks Diner in Booneville with his wife, Dianne Weeks) one old-fashioned hamburger recipe originated with John Weeks, who acquired his mix from a German immigrant and brought it to Corinth, Mississippi. John Weeks and his four brothers (including Fate Weeks, father of Willie Weeks), opened mobile hamburger stands across the lower Tennessee Valley.

Many origin accounts speak of the Great Depression. Sparing money, cooks stretched food dollars to feed families, mixing cheap and filling ingredients, such as cornmeal and breadcrumbs into ground beef patties, fried to order in homes and restaurants.

Weeksburgers, as they are known, were made from a mixture of beef and potato flakes. In 1917, they sold for a nickel. (The term “slug,” slang for a nickel, refers to the historical price of the hamburger.) The Weeks brothers catered to working-class farmers who came to town on business and to factory workers who ate quickly at lunch.

SelmerTrain

More recently, the term slugburger has gained popularity. In 1987 Main Street Corinth, an association of businesses promoting economic investment in Corinth, Mississippi, founded a Slugburger Festival in that city. No matter. For residents of these Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee counties, the hamburger is not merely a dancing mascot at a festival. This hamburger is an affordable, filling, and fast testament to the frugality of working-class people who have, over the last century, weathered economic lows and highs.

Two historical developments frame the trajectory of the slugburger. In 1933 the Tennessee Valley Authority, a New Deal initiative signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, brought cheap, abundant electricity to the lower Tennessee Valley, attracting textile plants and chemical manufacturers to the region.[2] As new workers moved into the region and locals left farms for factories, those workers required weekday lunches, served quick and cheap.[3] From the lower Tennessee Valley, the phenomenon spread. Trace the rail routes of Kansas City Southern, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, and follow the path of the ports along the Tombigbee River, and you get a picture of how this style of hamburger dispersed.

More recently, the NAFTA agreement, signed into law in 1994, brought about a new austerity as manufacturing concerns in the lower Tennessee Valley closed and the job base contracted. As many in the region struggled, this hamburger style took on a renewed relevance. Once again, the people of the lower Tennessee Valley fed themselves, frugally, on old-fashioned hamburgers.

Lathams--StoolsintheDarkLighter

Today, in these Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee counties, at these lunch counters, this hamburger prevails. Lunchtime customers carry them back to work in brown paper sacks. It is a token of survival, a tie to the past, an homage to creativity in a region that has weathered the expansions and contractions of industry. With that knowledge, the region has also gained its signal food, a hamburger by any other name.

[1] Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford University Press, 2004.

[2] United States Congress, “Tennessee Valley Authority Act,” May 18, 1933.

[3] Downs, Matthew L. Transforming the South: Federal Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1915-1960. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.

Interviews

Becky King

Becky King owns Wink’s Diner in Selmer, TN.

David Kidd

David Kidd is owner of The Butcher Block in Pontotoc, MS.

Don Knight

Don Knight is owner of Johnnie’s Drive-In in Tupelo, MS.

Dr. Franklin Penn

Dr. Franklin Penn was third generation owner of C.F. Penn Hamburgers. He sold the business in 2012.

Janice Milligan

Janice Milligan owns B.J.’s Corner Cafe in Iuka, MS with her son, Robert Hudson.

Kitty Spears

Kyle Spears owns the Busy Bee Cafe in Cullman, Alabama with his sister and brother-in-law. His mother, Kitty, is the former owner.

Kyle Spears

Kyle Spears owns Busy Bee Cafe in Cullman, Alabama with his sister and brother-in-law.

Mary Lawson

Mary Lawson owns Willie Burgers in Hartselle, AL.

Melanie King

Melanie King owns Jacobs Grocery & Cafe with her husband, Aubrey in Hornsby, TN.

Pat Knight

Pat Knight owns Pat’s Cafe in Selmer, TN.

Robin Johnson

Robin Johnson works at Willie Burgers in Hartselle, AL.

Vicky Latham

Vicky Latham owns Latham’s Hamburger Inn in New Albany, Mississippi.

Wally Rakestraw

Wally Rakestraw manages Latham’s Hamburger Inn in New Albany, MS.

William Vandiver

William Vandiver is owner of C.F. Penn Hamburgers in Decatur, AL.