Let’s get one thing out of the way: I have no shame in enjoying a burger. Yes, that includes scarfing down a Big Mac in a quiet parking lot while listening to your favorite Tears for Fears album at two in the morning. No, that is not a personal reference, as far as I know, but the "shame burger," one that you might consider an embarrassment or deny to its fullest should anyone ever find out, is a real thing, at least to some.
If you’re James DiSabatino of Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, you take no shame in expressing your love for the Burger King Angry Whopper. "No exaggeration, it was straight-up awesome," says DiSabatino. "Don’t think it’s on the menu anymore, but it was last year, and it was legitimately delicious."
What makes a burger shameful anyway? If you're a chef or food writer or anyone who is influential on the food scene, surely eating something as mundane and debatably evil as a generic fast-food burger has to at least feel a little dirty. We’re supposed to love the fancier ones, the dry-aged masterpiece or the thoughtfully-sourced-everything burger instead of a greasy bomb of a burger at any given drive-through.
Me, I’d be ashamed to ever admit to enjoying a delectable Papa Burger from one Papa Gino’s, but you didn’t hear that from me. I will also deny ever having uttered the words, "You could do a lot worse than a Ruby Tuesday’s burger." I have no guilt about taking immense pleasure from a cheeseburger sub at Newtonville Pizza in my hometown, which I’m pretty sure is a 50/50 beast of low-grade ground beef and iceberg lettuce.
"White Castle is the best ever," says Ken Oringer, and Mei Mei pastry chef Jacqueline Dole admits that she's "normally a chicken sandwich kind of girl, but whenever [she] gets lucky enough to miss the bus out of Harvard Square [she'll] duck into Charlie's Kitchen for a double cheeseburger."
Much like our favorites, there is no quintessential guilty pleasure burger because it seems that not everyone finds it to be an admission of guilt. That’s just it, I think; some of us act as if we are supposed to feel guilty about enjoying certain things, and no doubt there is a fine line between legitimate enjoyment and mere inebriated poor decision-making.
Patrick Gilmartin of River Bar won’t take the bait; he says, "I don't really feel much food-based shame, but I will admit that a lot of my fishing trips begin or end with a whole mess of Wendy’s." We all grow up with this stuff, so why do we feel the need to be apologetic about it now?
Stephanie Cmar from Commonwealth (and also of Top Chef fame) loves the All American burger at Anthem in Faneuil Hall. "It's wicked dirty with velveeta and fried onions. It's bangin', but you feel terrible after." Ah, maybe that’s the missing link. It can’t be anything you’d be ashamed of unless you feel like garbage after eating it.
It gets trickier for Tony Messina of Uni."That’s a tough one. There are obviously plenty of burgers out there that are great but to say one that I'm ashamed of eating seems almost sacrilegious. If I had to choose one, though, I'd probably say an R.F. O'Sullivan burger would be my choice. Being a pub, their burgers shouldn't be as good as they are."
The debate goes on, but I say own it. Be proud of your burger of shame. As Josh Lewin from Bread & Salt Hospitality elaborates, "I like the Shake Shack burger quite a bit. If there's any shame in it, I guess it's because I know the Shake Shack migration to Boston is still a bit controversial for the locals. But hey, I like it. It makes me feel good; it's an especially welcome burger when traveling. Like in Washington, D.C., you can get off a long bus or train trip and head right to a nice, efficient, and delicious Shake Shack. Not like taking the train back to Boston when the blood sugar crash sends you straight to a much more shameful burger at McDonald's, where I recently binged on a quick snack while running straight to work while a local food writer was in line behind me. We both avoided eye contact and never spoke of it. This wouldn't have happened at Shake Shack."
There you have it. Not quite location-based, not necessarily due to severe stomachaches. In some cases, no moral regret whatsoever. Sometimes a burger is best served in a hip atmosphere where you can take your time, enjoy an adult beverage, and contemplate the finer things in life. But for most of us, our deepest and darkest burger fantasies are best laid close to the vest, quietly, without the benefit of an Instagram photo or bragging about it on social media. So go ahead, enjoy that Angry Whopper or binge on Shake Shack. We won't tell, and we certainly won’t judge.
In addition to writing his burger blog, Richard Chudy is co-author of an upcoming cookbook, American Burger Revival, due out in May 2015.