Sometimes you find things on the Internet; other times, things find you.
Poking around online last night, I wasn't even thinking about food – which, granted, is fairly unusual for me. Somehow, I managed to surf my way over a list of products still made in the USA, mostly clothes and accessories.
I was vaguely hoping to find myself a new duffel bag, something old-school and sturdy. But there, at the bottom of the page – below Johnson Woolen Mills of Johnson, Vermont, and Utility Canvas of Gardiner, New York – was, remarkably, a listing for a "Steam Cheese Burger Chest – Meriden, Connecticut."
This was a bigger, and more poignant, discovery for me than it would be for most people. I went to college in Middletown, so I know about steamed cheeseburgers, an odd regional burger variation that only exists in a tiny triangle around the Connecticut River - basically just in Meriden and Middletown.
For four years, steamed cheeseburgers were probably the largest and definitely the most pleasurable part of my diet. I haven't had one in 20 years.
To make steamed cheeseburgers, you need a metal box like the one Gattilia makes. It’s set on top of a grill, the bottom filled with water. Inside are rows of shelves. For each burger, you slide in a little rectangular tray, one half filled with loosely-packed ground beef, the other with a thick slice of cheddar cheese. The meat cooks, the cheese melts into a pudding-like consistency. You slip them both onto a hard roll, dress with onions and mustard, and enjoy.
The "enjoy" part might not be self-evident to those people who've never been to Meriden or Middletown. The joys of the steamed cheeseburger are a little elusive. The burger patty ends up the color of wet cardboard and has the texture of meatloaf. This can be a good thing, believe me. But really, it's all about the cheese.
In his book "Hamburger & Fries: An American Story," food historian John T. Edge waxes eloquent about his experience with the Connecticut steamed cheeseburger:
[T]he cheese resembled nothing so much as fondue. In yellow rivulets, it cascaded down the face of the burger, splotching my paper plate with pools of butterfat.
Yeah, that's it, exactly. It's been way too long since I've gazed at such a beautifully stained plate.
Edge spends some time with the maker of the Burg'r Tend'r, a retired banker, and they muse on "cheeseburger microclimates." As I read his account, I thought briefly about buying my own steamer box. But I'm not really ready to spend $236 on the "small home unit."
I could take a bus, I suppose, and go back to my old stomping grounds and my own cheeseburger source, O'Rourke's Diner on Main Street. It burned down in 2006, I learned with horror, but then loyal fans chipped in the hundreds of thousands of dollars it took to rebuild it. Guy Fieri visited a couple of years ago, and hung out with owner Brian O'Rourke, who looks just like he did a couple of decades ago.
Obviously, I'm not the only former southeast Connecticut resident with fond feelings for steamed cheeseburgers. And the great thing about the Internet is that anything you're obsessing over, other people are, too.
So it took only a few clicks to get over to this thread on the Roadfood message board, a step-by-step guide to simulating the burgers at home using empty tuna cans and a bamboo steamer. A poster on Chowhound made a more elegant version using heart-shaped ramekins.
I think I have a project for this weekend. You can go home again.