The Houston family eating hamburgers, August 1966

A family makes its own traditions

On Saturdays, we ate hamburgers. On Saturday morning, my mother drove to Veilleux’s Market for the meat. I accompanied her, my allowance in my pocket, to select a single candy bar from the particolored rack by the checkout, then tag along as she rattled her small cart through the shop’s narrow canyons. She was mostly there for beef, but she tipped other items into the cart, too: buns and chips, condiments, anything else she needed to carry us until her next major grocery run. She shopped at Veilleux’s because they had a true meat counter, not the soulless run of shrink-wrapped Styrofoam trays at the back of the big supermarket, but a glass case guarded by men with ropy hands who would grind the burger fresh. Good meat.

Veilleux’s was nested in the French-Canadian immigrant section of Waterville, Maine. The neighborhood, gridded with old clapboard houses and flanked by a vast Catholic cemetery, rose above Water Street, a wide avenue that snaked along the Kennebec River just below the hydro dam and the paper and woolen mills. This area of town was home to second- and third-generation Americans who had crossed down from Québec to work in the factories and mills, or to set up shop with a small family business, as my great-grandparents had done. The streets were peopled with kinfolk, so the houses were sieves for kids, seemingly all related, who banged barefoot in and out of screened porches all summer and reluctantly pulled shoes onto leathery feet in autumn to attend the Catholic grammar school, where the nuns beat their mother-tongue French straight out of them. A half-century later, in my day, this part of town was blighted and peeling, a regular fixture of the police blotter, especially the seedy bar called The Chez, two doors down from Veilleux’s, that was so dark in daytime I feared it, even from the car.

My mother had grown up in this neighborhood, the daughter of a plumber and a hairdresser, and my father had grown up nearby, too, the son of a milliner and a ne’er-do-well. After marrying and a stint in the Air Force and the birth of two boys, my parents moved, pre-me, to a small Cape-style house at the centerline of town, on liminal streets dividing the immigrant French neighborhood from those of what my father called the Anglos, meaning, I suppose, anyone who was not French. But the boundary was not bright, and our neighborhood had a mix of last names, not just French-sounding ones, because we came from a mix of places. There were Cotés and Violettes and Girouards but also Conways and Chases and Josephs. My neighbors’ legacies were British, Irish, German, Lebanese, French. Not African, though; there were almost no African-American families in town. No Asian-Americans or Latinos, either.

I grew up in this geography of betweenness. I did not grow up speaking French, as my mother had (until the nuns). My last name was not French because my father had a tiny trace of Scottish ancestry passed down via the ne’er-do-well. But I was acutely aware of my blood connection to the French and our collective immigrant history. I was not proud of it, because I had absorbed the message that it was shameful. We were also Catholics, which the broader culture still considered fringe. We were not practicing Catholics, not by the late 1970s, anyway, my family having bowed out of the hegemony of ritual and tithing, rejected the Latin liturgy and embroidered gilt of the old Church and the Post-Vatican-II guitar strumming of the new. We can worship just as well at home, my father had declared, although practically speaking our observance consisted principally of his saying grace at the table before supper, and not even a Christian grace but a Hebrew one:

Blessed art Thou,
O Lord, our God,
King of the Universe,
Who has brought forth bread from the earth.

His recitation had a sing-songy finality. But mostly it was our French-Canadian-ness that made me uncomfortable. Kids called us Frogs. Also, Canucks. Even French-Canadian kids used these words on themselves and on each other, parroting shame to defuse it of power. I wanted to erase this stigma, really this entire identity. I viewed my lineage as not just working class but as underclass, even déclassé.

The trip to Veilleux’s was a weekly reminder. There were other grocery stores in Waterville. Cottle’s was where the mothers of my more affluent friends shopped, almost exclusively. Cottle’s beamed with lush produce and neatly stacked tins and boxes, its floor a glossy white linoleum, its check-out garlanded with pink plastic flowers. To shop at Cottle’s, my mother would put on a shirt with a collar, step into good shoes, and apply sharp lipstick. Cottle’s was about buying groceries, and it was about being seen buying groceries. There was also a chain supermarket, an A&P, sited strategically along the fault line that cut our town across cultures. The A&P drew both communities to commodity food stacked to its fluorescent-lit ceiling. I liked Cottle’s better than the A&P, and I liked both stores better than Veilleux’s. Veilleux’s was my family’s past. Cottle’s was my longed-for present. Whether we liked it or not, the A&P was the future for us all.

The author and her brother at their great aunt’s house on Water Street, 1969
The author with her brother at their great aunt’s house just off Water Street in Waterville, Maine, 1969

At about 4:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, my mother began to prep the evening meal: hamburgers, always hamburgers. They were my father’s favorite food—he would have eaten them daily, my mother now claims. But the choice of Saturday was meaningful for other reasons. It was a meal that did not require much planning on my mother’s part, so it took the burden off a day that was often jammed with errands and projects. It was also the heart of the weekend, the apogee between bustling Saturday and quiet Sunday. Saturday was a special family day for us, more sacred than Sunday and yet more ecumenical, too. Saturday night hamburgers were a spiritual practice we could all embrace.

My mother would take the cold meat from the refrigerator, peel off the butcher paper, and form the meat by hand into fat patties, laying them onto a broiler pan along with a few slices of onion. If it was a pleasant summer day, my father might offer to light the grill, and would stack the kettle with a short pyramid of charcoal briquettes, douse them with lighter fluid, and set it all ablaze, the acrid petrol smoke flaring off in a cloud and bearding the briquettes with ash. The grill was, conventionally, my father’s domain, perhaps because it was a fiddly and mildly mechanical, or perhaps only because it is hard to build and tend a fire outdoors while one is also cooking indoors. It is a hearth separate from the hearth; a hearth divided. Mom may have simply needed the help.

While the meat was cooking, my mother would assemble a platter of lettuce, sliced tomato, and raw onion, which she called the Salad Plate. The lettuce was always iceberg. Oakleaf and Boston Bibb and microgreens were products of the 1990s, at least in Central Maine, so we had only iceberg, which came tightly wrapped in cellophane, each a perfect, uniform orb. I was often tasked with cleaning it, and there was a trick to this she had taught me: unwrap the cellophane, remove the outer leaves and discard them, raise the lettuce overhead and bring it down Smack! on the Formica counter to knock its core free from its halo of leaves. Then rinse the lettuce upside down under the faucet, water smoothing into its inner folds. There was never any dirt on this lettuce; there was little evidence the plant had even grown in soil. Each successive pair of hands from farm to market had stripped it of its outer shell, so the act of washing was not about cleaning but about ridding it of some unseen out-thereness, and in the process transforming it from produce into food. Iceberg was, in fact, so non-vegetal that when I first tended a garden, as an adult, I was surprised by lettuce’s plangent vitality. Here was a vegetable with spirit and flavor, its deep green outer leaves dusted with dirt and aphids and veined by the slug’s glistering trail. The lettuce of my youth was bland and watery, but it was dependably available, and it had holding power. It could keep for a week in its special Tupperware container, which each household I knew possessed: a sea-green plastic tub, stubby and conical, with a spikey, holey disk at the bottom that kept the lettuce elevated so it wouldn’t stew in its own juices and rot. The tub was topped by a translucent plastic lid with a dome in the center that exactly, precisely echoed the iceberg’s own crown. Imagine the commercial engine at work, here: the agricultural system that could design and produce reliably identical lettuces in any month of the year; the transportation system that could consistently deliver them, still fresh, to far-flung reaches of the U.S.; the consumer marketing system that responded by making a special keeper for these miracles of modern food production and distribution, then sold them by the millions to housewives, by housewives, in the living rooms next to the very kitchens in which they would be served.

Let’s not get started on the tomatoes.

The hamburgers were cooked, by broiler or grill, the Salad Plate was arrayed, the condiments—ketchup, mustard, relish, pickles, and mayonnaise—were set upon the table, along with potato chips or, when my family got a bit more liberal in the early 1980s, corn chips. Always at the last minute, my mother toasted the hamburger buns.

The food was served, the nuclear family sat to eat. My parents did not entertain, or entertained very little. We never had houseguests, and my parents did not throw parties, dinner or otherwise, with a very few notable exceptions. We occasionally welcomed to the table close relatives, but even this was unusual. But for a short period of time, perhaps a year or two, we were often joined for Saturday night hamburgers by a young man named Peter, whom my mother knew from the slightly experimental private school where they both taught. He was single, and evidently quite alone, and my mother invited him for hamburgers one Saturday and I guess it stuck, both the invitation and its acceptance. He was a drama teacher, or perhaps English or both, and had shaggy hair and a face scarred by acne and encumbered by thick, oversized glasses. He was in his twenties, really just out of boyhood, but to me he was exotic, a foreigner with stories from the world, stories behind him and ahead of him. His was such a young life, really, yet I otherwise had so little occasion to speak with any adults who were not my own teachers, and here at my elbow was a human from a foreign tribe. It occurred to me only years later that my mother may have had a diversity of reasons for including him at our Saturday table, some charitable—he’s away from family, needs a nice meal, likes hamburgers—some more personal—he’s a friend, he breaks the monotony of us, nonstop us. Perhaps he was a novelty to her, too, something to do, someone else to nurture or admire. I was the last child who lived. Two after me had died in her womb. She was in her late thirties then, so maybe he was another one to care for. Or maybe she found him exotic, like I did. I don’t need to know, but I sometimes wonder about it, why he got admitted to the circle of our ritual.

Such was Saturday night. The ingredients were fresh every week and yet the food was always the same: the tender-pink ground meat from Veilleux’s; the crisp toasted edges of the white buns and their insubstantial bite; the sharp, pungent catch of raw onion and the sweet slick of cooked; the salty chips and vinegary-sweet relish and ketchup. My construction process was likewise always the same: mayonnaise on the top bun, ketchup on the meat, relish on the ketchup, tomato on the relish, then lettuce, onion. No mustard for me. It was salty-sweet-savory-tangy all in one perfect, juicy package. And although I was the smallest at the table and very thin, I would bite into it ravenously, ravaged by hunger, panged by the aromas of the kitchen, whetted to distraction, sinking into it as if I had never eaten before and would never eat again. I would think, at my first bite, I must eat two. But by the time I had finished it I was full, I was done, it was a consummation.

I have no specific memory of any one of these meals, just the ur-memory, Saturday hamburgers, which is forever etched onto my palate. What is a hamburger? Simply a sandwich of cooked ground meat, served on a split bun. It is not French, and not European. We did not go to church. We were Americans. We ate hamburgers.



Top: the author, 8 months old, flanked by family; they got hamburgers, she got Gerber from a jar

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10 replies on “Hamburgers”
  1. Hi Meg,
    Thanks for this. It brought back memories. I grew up in Bangor about 1 hr. northeast of Waterville, with the same iceberg lettuce and hamburgers (although purchased from the A&P). Unfortunately, my mother thought TV dinners were the very definition of being modern.

  2. says: Judy Skorka

    I enjoyed reading this, Meg, especially because it is part of my history, as well. Your memories and mine are intertwined. You are an exceptional writer, one of the many gifts inherited from both your mom and dad (which is not to diminish your own innate talent). Unfortunately, I wasn’t given this gift. You have my admiration for your many gifts.

  3. says: Jill Barth

    Hamburgers are a reflection. My parents made them on the weekend too, and started calling them Megan-burgers because my best friend was always over on the weekend and joined us for dinner. She was a bit neglected at home and says now that having burgers identified as her meal felt more like home than home. Thanks for the round of memories!

  4. says: Michelle

    This is so beautifully written, your voice is captivating. While reading, I felt engrossed by your experience of class and place. I have very little memories of my life before the age of twelve, a snapshot here or there, but I absolutely love hamburgers, I wonder why. I think those of us of a certain age all had the lettuce experience, fantastic. I want to read more. I am waiting for your novel, it is there, I can hear it.

  5. says: James C. Hunt

    ” … I was often tasked with cleaning it, and there was a trick to this she had taught me: unwrap the cellophane, remove the outer leaves and discard them, raise the lettuce overhead and bring it down Smack! on the Formica counter to knock its core free from its halo of leaves. …”

    Of many, many wonderful details in this story, this resonated the most. Was taught it as a prep cook in the basement of Chiapparelli’s in Baltimore’s Little Italy, Nancy (D’Alesandro) Pelosi’s old ‘hood back in the late ’70s. Satisfying task. But we don’t eat iceberg no more, so no occasion to pass the trick on to the young’ns.

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