On Jeffrey Tennyson’s Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger

Tabitha Blankenbiller

Somewhere in the Buckley, Washington, library you’ll find a copy of Jeffrey Tennyson’s Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger with twenty-five 1996 checkout stamps. I read Tennyson’s book for a year, studying each page’s playful layout and memorizing his cheeky captions, as rapturous as scripture. His history recounted the sensational White Castle slider revolution, the drive-in neon constellation sky of California, and the coffee-shop-counter sentinels of respite along Route 66. An imagined America is pieced together in Tennyson’s pages, an America of families that dress up for dinner with the same ceremony as they do for church, of smiling waitresses in scalloped-lace aprons and starchy paper hats delivering toasted, melting, salty divinity to waiting cars. As he describes this golden age, Tennyson’s voice lilts off the page in a cadence that is self-aware (yes, he’s talking about hamburgers) but relentlessly reverent (god damn it, he loves hamburgers):  “At the local drive-in, burger-bearing dreamgirls such as Brenda helped put the amour in glamour, and the kitsch in the kitchen.” He spoke about his favorite food in a way that didn’t simply make me want to listen. It made me want to live in its world.

Through Hamburger Heaven I could imagine an adolescent life in which each day started with a freshly pressed poodle skirt and ended at the drive-in. If I could magically slip into Tennyson’s collection of original road stop photographs and toothy advertisements, I’d have everything my postmodern teenage life lacked: friends, acceptance, milk shakes.

That year, the year of Hamburger Heaven, I was failing to fit in to my new school in Buckley, a logging town on Mount Rainier’s plateau. We’d moved from the big city district of Tacoma, with its hundred combinations of languages, faiths, interests, abilities. Tacoma was a population of contours and shades. Buckley was as diversely flat as the open glen where Bambi’s mom was mowed down.

Social acceptance was governed by a clique of preened, identical Abercrombie girls who’d known each other since birth, who tracked together into adolescence. Girls who still, as I stumble across them in my Facebook periphery, attend each other’s birthdays and LuLaRoe parties as the next generation of cheerleaders and quarterbacks toddle at their knees.

I wore T-shirts screened with puns, not sexy brands. I turned in writing assignments with extra pages. I had bad skin.

I knew I was unacceptable there as myself, but I didn’t know what else to be. In a stunning feat of naïveté I held on to the Disney afternoon special notion that if you keep shining as Your Best Self, others will come around.

So when we were asked to present a demonstrative, teachable process to our classmates, I reached for the book I wouldn’t let the library take back, which ends with Tennyson’s perfect hamburger recipe.

“We need to go to a butcher,” I told my mom.

“Can’t I pick you up a pound of hamburger from Fred Meyer?” she pleaded, having already suffered my nerdy requests for calligraphy pens, road trip stops at Oregon Trail landmarks, and out-of-print George Washington biographies.

We negotiated for grocery store ground beef purchased the same day. I borrowed Mom’s electric skillet and set up my tiny kitchen next to the overhead projector. “It’s important not to overhandle the meat,” I said as I formed the patty, walking straight into a joke I didn’t understand and tipping the girls into a fit of barely veiled laughter. The half pound sizzled, and my teacher opened a window. I flipped it only once, just as Tennyson decreed, resisting the urge to oppress the swelling beef mass with a spatula smoosh.

“And that,” I said, raising my sandwich to the popcorn-ceiling sky, “is a perfect hamburger.”

I took the paper plate, the first dish I’d ever cooked by myself, back to my desk. As a presentation on proper Tamagotchi maintenance set up, I took a bite I can still remember. The textural harmony of butter-toasted bun and a blushing pink middle, warm and rich with a divine balance of salt and grease.

“I bet you she eats the whole thing,” I heard one of the girls fake whisper two seats behind me.

“What a fatty.”

Without speaking I stood from my desk, holding the plate, and walked my shame to the garbage can.

That weekend, I didn’t bring Hamburger Heaven to the checkout desk. I let it drop into the mawing black hole of the book return and retreated deeper into myself.

In the next two decades the memories of the book would flit in and out of my mind—when I had my first White Castle slider on the Las Vegas Strip, or whenever I saw a guy in a TV commercial mash his innocent burgers into the grill grates. When I began working on my first book, a collection of essays about food and the creative process, I couldn’t get Tennyson’s joy and design out of my head. I should tell him, I thought, and went to look up his contact info.

The top Google result for Jeffrey Tennyson, Author? A New York Times obituary.

Tennyson died in 2006, thirteen years after his omnivore’s opus was published. He was fifty-four years old, and lost his life to HIV complications.

I opened a new window and purchased the book I’d only leased in grade school. It arrived forty-eight hours later, hours I spent thinking of all that Tennyson had missed. The resurgence of quality over the commodity burgers of his final days: the national expansions of Shake Shack and Five Guys and In-N-Out. I wanted to read all the biting captions he’d have written for the Heart Attack Grill and Guy Fieri (“this flame-broiled vaudevillian’s schtick is rarely well done”). Pop culture was poised for a burger-worshipping renaissance, and he was cruelly, needlessly robbed of the chance to play maestro.

I spent a full afternoon with my sixth-grade best friend, revisiting the escape that Tennyson erected from his collection of neon photography and discarded menus. I marveled anew at the crisp, immaculate lines of the art deco White Tower restaurants that have vanished from their Midwest street corners. I grinned at his turns of phrase (“at Ships, the out-of-this-world, Ship-Shape Burger sold better than the hotcakes”).

At the back of the book I found my favorite section: a peek into Tennyson’s personal collection of hamburger art and memorabilia. When I flipped to my favorite painting, an eighties psychedelic burger in midflight, I noticed a rendering that my younger self hadn’t registered: a New York burger stop with a rainbow aesthetic that clashes with its menacing, darkened doorway. To the right, stairs descend into the subway underground, where we catch a man in motion, clad head to toe in black. He is more shadow than flesh; his head sags in resignation, in hurry, an entreaty for escape.

The caption: Painting by the author.

I knew that posture, that willing of self away from whispers and glare. That wish to disappear into a time when you belonged. Just as I knew its companion fear—that such a place doesn’t exist.

There was never a Hamburger Heaven. There were instead the same small, shitty towns and smaller-minded people, in all eras and all stages of the drive-in’s life-span. Tennyson and I could only offer up our overtipping hearts in the world we had, and hope that raw, unrepentant ardor was a beacon to another. Just as Tennyson’s had been to me.

Hamburger Heaven nested an imperceptible idea into my twelve-year-old mind: The things you love, the obsessions you can read about all hours of the day and recount so blissfully your words come out in song, the passions that make you stand out with zero chill—that affection will not always be a liability. One day it will become your greatest asset. What people remember you for, even after your departure.

I needed that revelation, even if it took me twenty years and two dozen checkouts to grasp it. Maybe Jeffrey Tennyson did, too.

Tabitha Blankenbiller lives outside of Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, and her essay collection, Eats of Eden, is now available.