I returned to Louisville, Ky., recently for a visit with my parents, which generally involves more good home cooking than you can imagine in a week. Old favorites, new recipes – you name it, we fix it.
Most every trip is the same. Before I know it, the week is over and there’s barely been enough time to squeeze in a visit to a restaurant, even for a quick treat. This trip was no exception, at least until the final day. A plumbing problem kept the kitchen off limits for longer than any of us thought. So, where would we go?
I had only one answer: White Castle.
For those who have never had a White Castle slider, or those who have only had the close-but-no-cigar frozen version, I cannot offer you the right words to explain the hold that these beauties have on a person. The actual term for the small sandwiches is sliders because they slide down so well.
Their appeal isn’t about the square patties in the fluffy, puffy buns, the few shavings of onion or the pickle slice on each. It isn’t about the way the burgers are steamed, not fried or grilled. It isn’t the fun of putting away a half-dozen in a matter of minutes.
Sure, all of these factors contribute to the overall lure. But the magic hold White Castle exerts reaches beyond the food and into the memories that visits over the years have paid.
I was about 7 or 8 when I had my first slider. It was after a performance of “The Nutcracker” that a friend of the family had taken me to. I don’t remember much about the ballet, but I remember to this day the coating on the onion rings and the super-sweet Big Red I had with the juicy little burger.
My family didn’t eat out much when I was young, and fast food was almost never on the menu, even on road trips. So, it was probably 7 or 8 years before I returned to White Castle. Yet I remembered the flavor as if it had been the day before.
I also remember my high school’s National Honor Society sponsoring a White Castle-eating contest as a fundraiser. What eating all that grease had to do with brains, I can’t say. And, yes, someone who consumed more than two dozen in 10 minutes did lose his lunch.
About that time, the nearby White Castle on Chenoweth Lane acquired another reputation, as a haven for the stoned who ended up with the munchies. The neon signs in the windows even gave a kind of greenish glow to the interior as you passed by, making you wonder if the patrons were really enveloped in green smoke.
A few years later, I enjoyed many more sliders — way too many, as I look back on it — after landing a summer internship at a newspaper across the street.
I moved away from Louisville that year, but the taste of those little burgers stayed with me, calling me back whenever I returned for a visit. Friends in San Antonio who have also been blessed with slider fever would ask if I had managed to pick up a six-pack, so they could live vicariously through each juicy bite.
Occasionally, I could say yes. But the visits stopped after that Chenoweth location in its old-fashioned castle-shaped building was torn down.
So, I was simultaneously excited and cautious about approaching a new White Castle store. Sure enough, the shining new locale was a dull as any other fast-food place. No suggestion of a castle, no suggestion of eating food fit for a king or a queen.
But the food was every bit as good as I remembered.
The sliders were still greasy little delights. More than a dozen disappeared in a matter of minutes (and, yes, I kept them down). The onion rings were as crisp and alluring as ever in their manufactured way. I even enjoyed most of a pulled pork slider, though the barbecue sauce used had an offensively chemical aftertaste. What were they thinking? What was I thinking for ordering it?
No matter. I just hope White Castle, now in its ninth decade of business, stays around long enough for others to build their own memories.