Thursday, November 30, 2006
The Tiny Burgers of New Jersey: White Manna, Hackensack, NJ.
Back when my family first moved from the Bronx to New Jersey, my best friend in school was a guy named Lee Aldridge. His mother spoke Hungarian and immediately became close friends with my mom, but his father was a clan chief of the Oklahoma Cherokee who also ran the White Manna Diner in Hackensack New Jersey. That was the first of many Cherokee-Hungarian mixed marriages that I have come across over the years. I don't know what the attraction is between the more traditional Cherokees and the Hungarians. Apparently the sons of Kituwha and the daughters of Arpád go well together. The White Manna was originally a burger shack at the 1938 New York World's Fair, later relocated to River Road along the Hackensack River. White Manna used to be my lunch of choice while I worked on a Hackensack Municipal garbage truck back in the 70's. Since the garbage crew started out at 5 am, lunch was usually around 9 am - so we never had to wait for burgers. White Manna make tiny burgers - a folkloric specialty of New Jersey that is now becoming a gourmet fad among New York Bistros. Miniscule lumps of fresh ground beef are slapped onto the grill and covered with a layer of onions, then flipped and grilled on top of the onions. This was a depression era method of making a small amount of meat stuff a much larger buger bun, but it stuck because beef and onions go so well together. That orange block is sliced cheese, which gets slapped on the cheeseburgers at the last minute. Cheese like this cannot be found at fine cheese shops - you can only get it at Jersey burger stands, Army bases, and on some less affluent Indian reservations. While we were waiting a guy dressed in classic restaurant chef's uniform came in and ordered fifty cheeseburgers to go for his kitchen workers. "These are the best" he said, "I've been eating them since I was a kid." He then proceeded to speak in rapid-fire Dominican Spanish to all the grill cooks - it sounded like music to me. After years of living in Europe I still shudder when I have to wade through an earful of Iberian Spanish. Madrid Spanish sounds like people speaking Castillano after getting a mouth full of novocaine at the dentist office. Carribean Spanish, Mexican, Bolivian, Columbian - now that is Spanish that my ears can accept. You don't order "one burger" at White Mana. We went easy and ordered a modest two. With Fries. The fries are real fries - somebody in the back actually cutting potatoes, and soaking them in water to get the starch out so they fry crispy. No plastic pseudo-fries anywhere near the premises - you'll have to wait for your fries. And the burgers are heavenly - soft potato dough buns and loads of fried/steamed onions. Although burgers like these may be the ancestor of the modern fast food burger, they are anything but fast food. I have been having problems loading photos to the blog page over the last two days, so bear with me while I try and fix the problem. Brother Ron and I also visited the White Castle Hamburger joint in Fairview, New Jersey, but I can't get the pictures to load yet. Otherwise, much of my time is taken with meeting old friends in the New York Jewish music world, being overwhelmed when I walk into giant bookstores filled with books in English (I immediately go on the fritz trying to browse twenty years worth of reading into one hour) and trying to understand why things like knishes could have become light, healthy foods that contain broccoli. That is just...wrong. So wrong.