"Let me tell you about the absolute best hamburger I've ever had in my life..."
When I was growing up, my Norwegian grandparents bought a summer home on the island of Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy is on the Eastern coast of Canada between Nova Scotia and the mainland of New Brunswick and is known for having the highest tides in the world. The island was a real throwback to the old seafaring days... just about everyone fished or was in a business related to the sea. If you've ever seen the movie Johnny Belinda, it was pretty much just like that.
I'm sure my grandparents liked the place so much because it reminded them of Norway. My grandfather had been sea captain (like his father and grandfather before him) and when he retired (in 1960, three years before I was born) he bought a beautiful small motor boat from a boatyard in Norway that he had shipped over. During their summers in Canada he would sail the beautiful lacquered wooden motorboat around to the many small islands in the area.
I spent at least 2 weeks every summer from about 1968 to 1975 up there visiting with them. Their house was one of the oldest on the island and was a registered landmark. They had an organ from the 1800's in the parlor which I loved to play (or at least pull the stops on and try to play - like the phantom of the opera), and I remember that from the dining room table we could look out and see whales spouting out in the bay!
One winter in the early '70s My grandparents summer house burned down under mysterious circumstances (there was a known firebug on the island but since no one saw him do it...). They looked around for another house but couldn't find one on Grand Manan that suited them.
There was a much smaller island nearby named White Head that they had visited quite often, where they found a quaint little house that was lovely but nowhere near as nice as the house on the big island had been.
The island of White Head was about 5 square miles, and had probably no more than 200 inhabitants. And, as you can imagine, just about all of them worked in the fishing industry.
The island boasted a General Store, one church, a cannery, a post office (but you had to go down and pick up your own mail as soon as the ferry delivered it) and what seemed like a thousand fishing boats of all sizes moored in the tiny harbor.
It was here on this idyllic little Norman Rockwellian island that I was to discover the greatest hamburgers on the face of the planet.
My grandparents house was a small white "Cape Cod" style house, about 1 "block" down from the main pier where the small ferry to Grand Manan island landed. Across the street from the house was the General Store which always had a contingent of retired fishermen hanging about.
Two doors down from my grandparents house was a small building that I soon found out was the local burger joint. Well, that might be a misleading title, it was a very small building - not quite a shed, but not quite a house or store either. It basically consisted of one room with about three tables and a small counter with a grill behind it. I don't think it had a sign of any kind on the outside, and it most definitely did NOT keep regular hours.
It was run by a kindly older gentleman named Mr. Banks who would alternate between lollygaggin at the general store across the street, whittling & chewing the fat with the fishermen, and cooking burgers for the kids on the island (who numbered about 35, all told). When he saw a person walk up to his place, and if he was in the mood, he'd saunter over and open 'er up for you. When you got inside he'd put on his apron and ask you what you'd like (there wasn't any menu either printed or on the wall).
Jim was one of the neighbor kids who I had met and became fast friends with, took me over there one day and Mr. Banks made us hamburgers. He asked if I'd ever had one of his specials before (knowing full well that I hadn't) and then proceeded to make me one. He started up the grill and put a little butter and then some sliced onions on it. As the onions were cooking he told us he had just finished grinding up some beef he had gotten from the farm and he went over to his refrigerator and got two round balls of ground beef and started shaping them into patties. I wondered which of the 4 cows on the island had given up the ghost for the burgers we were about to have.
The room was starting to fill with the smell of the browning onions as Mr. Banks put the burgers on the grill. He sprinkled some salt on the burgers as they were cooking and then some other spices from a shaker. He grabbed a handful of French fries from a big bucket full of water, shook the excess water off of them, and then placed them in a deep fryer basket. When he flipped the burgers he pulled out two big burger buns, split them and put them on the grill next to the burgers to brown. Then he put the fryer baskets down into the deep fryer. The oil started to bubble and froth. After about a minute he pulled the buns off the grill and started to apply the condiments.
Now as most kids where I come from will tell you, there are certain rules and etiquette to applying condiments to kid food. The one big rule in my neighborhood in Brooklyn was this: Ketchup goes on *HAMBURGERS* and Mustard goes on *HOT DOGS* and never the other way around. Any kid that put ketchup on a hot dog was just plain *WEIRD*! And mustard on a hamburger? Eeeeeeeewww! So you can imagine my horror as I watched Mr. Banks start squeezing mustard on to my hamburger bun. Before I could regain my composure and utter my protest, he picked up the ketchup and started squeezing red streaks into the yellow mustard. "Hey," I said, "You can't do that!" "You're puttin' mustard on a hamburger!" "Why, sure I can," replied Mr. Banks with a chuckle "You just wait, and see if you like it when it's done." He then proceeded to put mayonnaise and lettuce on the bun bottoms. My New York sensibilities of how things are supposed to be notwithstanding, I held my tongue and let him continue. "When in Rome..." I figured, "but boy, these Canucks sure are weird..." I thought.
Mr. Banks took his spatula and slid the two burgers off the grill and placed them on the bun bottoms. He then put a healthy dose of the caramelized onions on top of the burgers and lightly pressed the ketchup & mustard laced bun tops onto the burgers. He pulled the fryer baskets out of the oil and shook the extra oil off of them. He then dumped the French fries into a big colander in the sink next to him. He put a healthy (?) heap of fries on each of our plates and placed the burgers next to them and then handed them over the counter to us.
We sat down quickly and started in.
Now, even at the tender age of 9 I was no novice to the world of fine dining. Growing up in New York I was exposed to many different cuisines in those few short years and had learned to appreciate foods ranging from the spicy Jamaican Beef Patties sold in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, to the Fiskeballer my Bestemor (that's Norwegian for Grandmother) made, to the food at Yang's restaurant in Chinatown, to the chopped liver my Godmother Selma made (I loved the stuff, even though I usually HATED liver!!). And hamburgers I was an expert on. But I have to tell you, as soon as I took my first bite of the hamburger that was before me, I knew that this was far and away the best hamburger I had ever tasted! It wasn't even close! No hamburger I had ever had before made my taste buds dance for joy the way that this one did. Not the big juicy ones my dad made after marinating them in Wishbone Italian salad dressing, not the charbroiled ones at the barbecue hut we went to on Utica avenue sometimes, and certainly not the one's from McWhatshisface the clown!
No, this was on a totally different level altogether. If a McDonald's burger was a Sopwith Camel, this burger was Apollo 11! If a Whopper was a bicycle, this burger was a Ferrari!
I mean, the way the flavors swirled around in my mouth, the juice, the mayo, the beef, the sweet of the onions and the ketchup intermingling with the sharp twang of the mustard, the slightly toasted bun, . Mmmmmmmm.... Jim and I ate our burgers and I told Mr. Banks that I'd never in my life tasted a burger as good as his. He seemed genuinely pleased that I liked his burgers so much. He smiled the big friendly smile of his and he told me that anytime I wanted one to just come and find him wherever he was (kinda hard not too be able to find someone on an island this small, he said) and he'd open up just to make one for me.
Over the course of the next two weeks I probably ate about 30 of those burgers, a little over two a day. My Bestemor was probably curious as to why I didn't seem as interested in her fiskeballer any more but I'm sure she figured it out eventually. I spent almost every last cent of the vacation money my Mom had given me on those burgers. Mr. Banks would have thought my folks starved me at home if it weren't for my fairly husky size.
Now of course, I did do a lot of other things on those trips up to the great white north besides eat hamburger's at Mr. Banks. I was invited to go out one morning on a Cod Fishing boat and spent about 6 hours in the dark & cold & wet thinking how cool it was that the fishermen let me drink coffee and how, even though I didn't catch a single cod, I DID catch a baby shark about 1 foot long! And having my Grandfather pilot us around to the other small islands to pick gooseberries and wildflowers, was really cool. But, man, I still can't get those burgers out of my mind
In 1976 my Mom & I moved out to California and two years later my Grandparents sold the house up on White Head. My Grandfather was getting on and couldn't pilot the boat anymore and it was just too expensive to maintain as just a summer house.
I heard recently from my Bestemor that Mr. Banks had passed away, and I couldn't help thinking about those burgers again. Then an Email discussion about hamburgers started at work and, well, I figured that I'd throw my 2 cents-er better make that a dollar, in.
I don't know if anyone still makes burgers in that place, don't even know if the building is still there. I feel kinda sad that I didn't get a chance to go back there while I was still a kid but, maybe I can take my daughters Sofia and Isabel there someday. And I'll just bet that if that funny little building is still there, and the grill is too, and if I can find someone to let me in, and if there's still a cow or two left on the island, I'll just have to try and make them each one of Mr. Bank's specials...