As one of the great East Coast and Midwest traditions, White Castle stands proudly as the oldest of all hamburger fast-food joints. While they’re not global like McDonalds and Burger King, their unique style helps White Castle to stand out in a way that beckons travelers from other parts of the nation, and perhaps the world, to come and give a “slider” a try.
Created in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas by entrepreneur Billy Ingram, White Castle arrived just 15 years after Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, which made the public aware of the unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry. In an attempt to change the public distrust of the industry, White Castle was created to promote the image of cleanliness and order. The white buildings and tidy interiors featured employees with perfect uniforms ready to serve up a tasty burger free from the doubt cast upon the hamburger industry. In fact, White Castle was the first to sell a million hamburgers. That feat was partially the result of the efficient methods of Ingram’s business partner, Walter Anderson, who would grind the meat and prepare the burgers in full view of the customer.
The original burgers were made much differently than the White Castle burgers of today. They started with freshly ground balls of beef about an inch and a half in diameter. After placing several on the griddle, they were topped with thinly sliced onions and left to cook a bit longer. Next, they were flipped over and pressed down, creating the patty, grilling both the onions and cooking the remainder of the meat. A bun was placed on top of the burger, soaking up the flavors of the beef and the onions. Once it was finished, they were flipped over, topped with a slice of dill pickle, topped with a bun, placed on a plate and handed to the customer.
In 1949, the switch was made to frozen patties with five little holes and dehydrated chopped onions. Burgers today start with the onions on the griddle with the patty on top. As the juices mix together through their “steam grilling” process, the burgers cook up quickly and, thanks to the clever little holes in the patty, there’s no flipping required. A bun is placed on top, the whole thing is picked up with a spatula, topped off and ready to go.
Sliders are often sold “by the sack.” You can get them by four, by six, by ten… by just about whatever. In fact, today White Castle offers what is lovingly referred to as the Crave Case. Thirty piping hot sliders are packed away in a luggage shaped box, ready to head off to the dinner table. Sliders are available with or without cheese, and even come stacked up as doubles, with three buns and two patties with all the traditional fixin’s (onion and pickles). In many White Castles, bacon is even available for those needing a swine fix. While a handful of White Castles will offer to put the ketchup and mustard on for you, most prefer to leave it entirely up to the customer, providing the items at the condiment counter.
Much of White Castle’s popularity is word-of-mouth based, although Hollywood has done its best to lend a helping hand. The iconic burgers have been featured in Saturday Night Fever, Wayne’s World and, of course, the 2004 comedy, Harold & Kumar go to White Castle. And, for those not lucky enough to live near the real thing, most grocery stores now carry frozen boxes of burgers, although they just aren’t the same as ones fresh off the grill.
If you are a fan of White Castle, perhaps have been eating sacks of sliders since you could walk, we’d love to hear your recollections of this fast-food delicacy in our comments section.