Saturday, July 16, 2011

In Praise of Sliders

Some of my relatives were indulging in the guilty pleasure of a trip to White Castles earlier this week. Having failed to invite this humble scribbler to the festivities evidently placed a curse on their efforts, and they suffered gastronomic retribution that should keep them from committing such offenses in the future. 

Having enacted what in the minds of many would already be considered an all but unpardonable action however, they went on to further transgression (some might even go so far as to call it blasphemy) by blaming their abdominal affliction on the objects of diminutive ambrosia that they had previously enjoyed. 

For those of you still confused through a lack of experience with this humble gourmet delight, I am of course speaking of those miniature marvels of ground beef ... White Castle hamburgers. But the 'White Castle' is not your ordinary hamburger. The meat of these little beauties is prepared in a fashion entirely different than that of its more plebeian bovine brothers. These burgers are not fried or broiled, but instead laid out on a grill covered in finely diced onions. They are then concealed by their buns (something that founder Walter A Anderson is credited with inventing) and left to steam through the patented five strategically placed holes in the meat. When the meat is cooked through (without flipping), bun and burger are removed together, a pickle is placed on it, and it is efficiently boxed for delivery. 

Though known by many names in the past, 'Whitey-one-bites', 'rats with hats', and 'belly busters', these gastronomic delights are best known by the nickname 'Sliders'. In so naming them, we must also clear up any misconceptions as to the meaning of this most commonly used moniker; so here at 'Just Blowing Smoke', this word shall hereafter be defined as:

Seductive Little Incredibly Delicious Edible Refreshments
(I have also notified the lexicographers at the SOS Dictionary to this effect)

While White Castle was in fact begun in Wichita, Kansas back in 1921, it is an unfortunate fact that no restaurants of the chain remain in the Sunflower State. In fact, no White Castle restaurants can be found now much past the outskirts of St Louis (though I've heard rumor of a couple in Columbia, MO). As a consequence, those of us this far west of the Mississippi who 'crave' sliders must make do with occasional ingestion of the frozen variety sold at grocery store chains around the country (a poor substitute at best), or make a 2+ hour trip one-way to buy a sack or two. And believe me when I tell you that buying these as White Castle advertises, "by the sack" is in fact a requirement; since these burgers are 2-1/2" square and comparatively thin besides. 

What they lack in size however, they more than make up for in flavor; and combined with either their french fries, or especially with their onion rings (no one was ever hurt by doubling down on onions) they make a unique dining experience. White Castle has experienced a wave of unfavorable publicity over the years relating to their potential side effects, earning them a reputation for gastronomic disturbance. 

There is some truth to this reputation, since the consumption of grilled onions on such an epic scale has been known to produce gastric anomalies such as the plentiful production of methane or a laxative effect of prodigious proportions (especially in those previously uninitiated). Like many of the things that offer potential health benefits however, the side effects are more than worth the risk taken. 

Much of the rest of the poor regard in which they are held has to do with the questionable behavior of its late-night clientele. Since all White Castles are open 24/7 (except for Christmas), these dining establishments often find themselves catering to a clientele that has recently been asked to depart an adult beverage consumption station when its hours of operation have ended. Waking up the following morning, they blame their emerging symptoms and afflictions not on the 12 beers and 6 Jaeger-bombs that they consumed, but on the Sliders which they attempted to use to soak up the alcohol afterward. 

So by all means set your fears aside and feel free to indulge yourself in the wonder of White Castles if you are lucky enough to live close enough (or at least within 100 miles) to one. Think kindly of me, if you will, while savoring the delectable nature of the 'whitey-one-bite'; lest I likewise divine your lack of proper respect for the porcelain palace and cast a similar curse upon you. And if you are feeling truly charitable, you might think about dropping a few off in KC on your way through; a humanitarian gesture for which you will no doubt find a reward in heaven. 

Speaking of dropping off Sliders in KC, I must recount a bit of family history ... Early in my traveling days and while living in KC for the first time, I was under standing orders from my parents to bring back White Castles if returning to the City of Fountains by way of St Louis. One Friday afternoon as I was making my way home, I realized this to be the case; and as it was already after lunch, decided to kill two birds with one stone. Finding the nearest White Castle (probably the one on I-70 & Cave Springs Road) and going inside, I ordered: 48 White Castles, 6 cheeseburgers, a medium fries, and a large Diet Coke. Without hesitation (or even the hint of a smile) the young counter agent replied, "Is that for here or to go?" In the spirit of full disclosure, I freely admit that I have also partaken of the Southern Substitute for White Castles ... Krystals. And while I will always be a 'Slider Pilot' (as they say, "been there, done than, and even had the T-shirt"), I grew rather fond of the Krystal burger in my days below the Mason-Dixon line as a "Damn Yankee".

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