Long before the Big Mac or the Whopper entered my life, there was the Big'un from the Snow White Drive-In in St. Joseph, Mo.
It was my first double-decker hamburger, the burger of my youth.
The meat in the Big'un was juicer, its three buns were toastier, and its sauce was saucier than any other hamburger I have eaten.
Not only did I eat uncounted numbers of the sandwich, I also cooked a few of them.
When I was 17 I got my first and, as it turned out, my only, job in the restaurant industry. I was soda jerk at Snow White. The restaurant had two sections. In the front, a diner with tables and stools. And in the back, a kitchen that turned out food and drinks for customers who ate while sitting in their cars. I was in the car-hop kitchen.
I made a mean malt. It was sweet yet thirst-quenching, with TC surprising "wheaty" aftertaste. But once I had mastered the malt, I was on the lookout for new culinary challenges. Such as frying hamburgers. So when the regular cook of the drive-in section took a break, I sometimes cooked the Big'uns.
The key was warming the sandwich's three buns as you cooked the hamburger. You cooked both buns and hamburger on the grill. If you put the buns on the grill too soon, while the burger still had a few minutes of cooking left, the buns would dry out. If you put them on too late, the buns would be tepid, not toasty.
The Big'un was a hot food experience. Bradley Christie, the exacting owner of the Snow White, stressed that to us, if not in those exact words, during his daily inspections of the restaurant. Years later, at a national culinary competition in New Orleans, I heard a master chef from the Culinary Institute of America disapprove of a dish that mixed hot crawfish with a cold shrimp mousse. A hot dish, the master chef said, should be totally hot, not half hot and half cold. I already knew that. That was why we toasted the buns for the Big'un.
While I made a passable Big'un, I could never approach the work of Earl. I knew him just as Earl. Later I learned his last name was Callaway. He was the main cook in the restaurant.
Earl and I had our differences. One morning during one of my many pauses from work, I tried talk to Earl out of voting for Barry Goldwater for president.
Sounding as cocksure as only a high school senior can, I read Earl parts of the Republican Party platform, pounded the table, and waited for Earl to admit the error of his political beliefs.
Earl just sat there smiling at me and shaking his head. Then he jumped up and ran to the kitchen. There he filled orders for waffles, or eggs, or Big'uns.
There was rarely a need for me to go running back to the car-service kitchen. We weren't that busy. For years the Snow-White drive in had been a regular evening hangout for the teen-agers of the town. If you had a date, Snow White was the place you took your date for refreshments. If you didn't have a date, Snow White was the place you went to see who did have a date.
And as happens, when teen-agers and cars and hormones come together, things sometimes got rowdy. Cars "peeled" out or blocked traffic. Rude things were said to car hops.
Once things got so out of hand that Mr. Christie closed the drive-in operation for the summer. The next summer the drive-in reopened and I got a job there.
But the prices were higher, and at night a police car was on the premises, discouraging kids from simply driving through without buying anything. The word was out that if you went to Snow White, you had to behave, and buy something. Business dropped off, especially in the day, thereby allowing me to make my malts at a leisurely pace.
I used my time to become acquainted with the restaurant's Boston cream pie, and to get a new appreciation for its banana cream and strawberry pies. One of the benefits of working at Snow White was free meals.
Thinking back on it, my summer at Snow White also gave me a glimpse of what it takes to run a good restaurant. A place where the ingredients mattered. A place where the beef chuck for the Big'un was ground at the restaurant. A place where the pies were homemade, where the owners, Mr. Christie and his wife Stella, made their standards known and their presence felt, yet realized that trusted employees were what mattered.
And so the other day when I read a story from the St. Joseph News Press/Gazette saying the Snow White was being knocked down, I felt melancholy.
The restaurant is being replaced with a Winstead's, a similar burger and malt restaurant outfit.
Upon reading the news I called David Ackelson, director of operations for Winstead's and quizzed him about his burgers.
Ackelson said that just like the Snow White, Winstead's grinds its own meat. And he said that Winstead's made a good malt. He added that not only does Winstead's make a hamburger with two patties, it also makes one with three patties, called a triple.
He did his best to reassure me that the Big'un tradition will live on at Winstead's.
I was comforted, but not convinced. The problem is that Winstead's is a Kansas City outfit, and old rivalries die hard. Growing up in St. Joe, I learned that Kansas City was the big city. The place with the plush high school gyms, the fancy cars, the "wild" rich kids.
Kansas City had the Country Club Plaza, the Kansas City Athletics, the Starlight Theater.
But as anyone who had ever eaten a Big'un knew, St. Joe had the best burgers.