The American South is crawling with iconic foods. From the well-known (fried chicken and grits) to the more esoteric (Kool-Aid pickles and country captain), the confluence of cultures, trade routes, and histo—You know what? This isn’t an educational food piece.
Much fine writing has been done about these subjects: history, flows of people and ingredients, and more. More-qualified people can tell you about those things.
I am here to tell you about a sandwich and my unabashed, uncontrollable love for it.
It is called a “slugburger.” Don’t stop reading! This isn’t about a burger made out of slugs. This is about a sandwich whose spiritual home is Corinth, Mississippi. This is about a sandwich that I came across by accident, when I was foolish and young enough to think that I had plumbed the depths of Southern cuisine and come up well educated. This sandwich is a greasy lesson in humility.
“Just find us somewhere to eat in Corinth,” said my mother on the phone one day. We were about to make one of our pilgrimages from Alabama to Jackson, Tennessee, to see my grandmother in her nursing home. If you Google “Corinth, Mississippi food,” the first thing that comes up is Cracker Barrel. No.
If you keep looking, though, you start to find references to the slugburger. Here are the facts as I understand them: During the Depression, when times were obviously tight, some restaurants took to “stretching” their meat with filler. Soy filler, grain filler … Ask a modern eatery that serves slugburgers and you won’t get much joy. The recipes are fiercely guarded. Anyway, these stretched burgers were deep-fried and served for a nickel, or “slug.”
I try to avoid meat in my “real” life, but every trip home, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, leads to a slip-up or two. One of those is always a slugburger. It’s a simple thing, really: a thin patty of beef—sometimes pork—and filler, deep-fried and squished into a white bun that has nothing whatsoever to do with whole grains. At the White Trolley Cafe, where I like to go, I ask for the sandwich with cheese, pickles, and mustard. The sandwich comes in a paper slip that becomes translucent with grease from its (short-lived) tenant. The preferred accompaniment is tater tots, well done, with a large swirl of bright yellow mustard and a cup of cola—the more ice, the better. You can still buy this meal with a $5 bill and get change back. The White Trolley has a few tables, but its long, narrow counter lit with warm yellow light is somehow the exactly right place to eat this Mississippi specialty.
I am not alone in my admiration. Every year Corinth hosts a Slugburger Festival, complete with carnival rides and an eating contest. No less a luminary than Joey Chestnut (of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest fame) has competed in this event. I mean to go every year and never make it. It’s on my bucket list.
I’ve told you what the sandwich is, what it contains, how it’s served, where to get it. What I can’t tell you is why I crave it. After that first, fateful trip to the White Trolley Cafe (it was some effort, shouting my parents down over Cracker Barrel, which is a fine institution but not my favorite), slugburgers became part of the equation of visiting my grandmother. Is it a balm for the soul after the antiseptic stench and sadness inherent in visiting a family member in a place like that? Is it that I at some point tacitly gave myself permission to eat this greasy masterpiece as a part of my “Southern heritage”?
I can only guess at the reasons. I feel like crap every time I eat a slugburger. I feel guilt about eating meat. I feel bad about the caloric impact. But I can’t stop, and I won’t stop, and I suspect that long after my grandmother is gone, I will still make pilgrimages to Corinth for slugburgers.
It’s completely absurd. I don’t understand it. And it makes my stomach feel funny. But unless you are considerably better-adjusted than I am, isn’t that what love normally feels like?