Each week, one of our favorite writers is drafting a list of every instance their favorite food saved their life. From slices of pizza to bagels, tacos to tamales, these emotional eats remind us that food is so much more than fuel.
It took me 10 days to drive cross-country to Los Angeles. I was traveling with my boyfriend of one year, and our starting point was Boston, the city where I had just completed four years of undergraduate college. We took a leisurely L-shaped route across America so that we could intersect with Atlanta, Georgia. That was where I had matured, where I had developed my very own dislikes and “favorites,” and likely where I had eaten my first cheeseburger and proclaimed it my favorite food. (At 17, I was fond of the square patty at Wendy’s.)
After surviving a nine-mile hike down and up the Grand Canyon in the unforgiving heat of July, nourished only by a box of Cheez-Its I had carried with me in a small backpack, we eventually crossed the California border and came face-to-face with quintessential L.A. traffic on the 101. I had navigated the entire road trip from big foldout maps. It being 2003, we had no GPS (if the technology had been invented, we didn’t know about it yet). Our only compass was my belly, and we encouraged it to direct us to a place we had only heard about in passing: In-N-Out Burger.
“Take the Santa Monica Boulevard exit,” I said, mentioning that Santa Monica Boulevard was part of Route 66. Weeks before, I had found us an apartment, which we would live in together for nearly two years. It was in West Hollywood just off Santa Monica Boulevard, but the area just off this particular exit ramp, near Western Avenue, was decidedly unglamorous.
Where the hell was the nearest In-N-Out?
It was dark. We stumbled up the stairs, a fragrant magnolia tree guiding us toward the front door. We unlocked it and went to switch on the light. It occurred to me just then that it had not occurred to me to call the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to turn on the damn electricity before our road trip, and oh, did I hate the dark. It was too dark to pull out our tattered map to find In-N-Out, so we got back in the car, where we had spent a third of the month already. With the help of 411, we eventually got ourselves to the nearest In-N-Out Burger, and there we were, on Sunset Boulevard, at the corner of Orange Avenue, ordering nervously, the secret menu still unbeknownst to us.
Most days since I discovered the Secret Menu, I get my Double-Double “animal-style” (like pictured), which means the burger patties are grilled in mustard, and it’s topped with grilled onions, pickles, and more sauce.
That night, our tummies delighted and our spirits restored, we slept in sleeping bags on the living room floor with a couple of lit candles. Burgers had saved us for a night.
In the morning, we went back for more. Yes, In-N-Out for breakfast! I craved the saltiness of each slice of melted cheese stuck to each little meat patty. Breakfast burgers devoured, we opened bank accounts. The bank rep snapped a picture of me, and it (still) appears on my ATM card, burger-delighted promise written all over my face. I had been in L.A. for less than 24 hours and double cheeseburgers had been my first two meals as an Angeleno. I was going to make it.
The relationship, on the other hand, wouldn’t. He liked burgers, but not with cheese. He didn’t like mayo on his burger or, in fact, “sauce” of any kind. I tolerated this for nearly five years, but this new me couldn’t tolerate it any longer.
Several months after that breakup, I went on a first date with a man 11 years my senior who informed me that the month of May was National Burger Month (it was currently mid-May). He took me out for a big, delicious burger at a pirate-themed dive bar called Redwood where an eighty-something-year-old blues singer named Mickey Champion was belting out gorgeously moving soul songs. She held not a microphone, but a bottle of Corona, which she sipped in between croons. (Mickey’s lungs didn’t require the former.) I ate the entire bacon-topped cheeseburger because it tasted that way sports-bar burgers tend to: unfussy and good , cooked on a grill aged beautifully with the char of thousands of burger patties before it. Our second date was over tender lamb burgers at a small bistro that I’m certain no foodie gives a damn about but somehow remains in business today. It was still May, and burgers—this time, smothered and slathered—had gotten me to date again. I was as surprised as you to find that this relationship—a kismet set-up kicked off by two back-to-back burger dates—went nowhere.
Then, there was the time I found myself dating “just a friend”—haven’t we all been there? He was the kind that would hug me several seconds longer than the standard appropriate hug with a platonic male friend. Sometimes, our conversations about our “feelings” would be so intensely emotional, I would just have to eat them. He was the first person I called when I got into a car accident—two high school students en route to prom, lost in the streets of Hollywood, would hit me four days after my car was finally fixed from a prior car accident. He hugged me (for too long), and we ate burgers held together, unnaturally, by the nooks and crannies of herb buttered-English muffins. We were good friends, but having any fun together didn’t come easy. Our shared love of burgers had saved us from ever kissing.
This is my typical spread at Apple Pan, though the root beer is sometimes an orange soda. This particular shot was taken the day I hired my first lawyer. She’s in Beverly Hills, near Apple Pan … sort of.
Once, in passing, a guy told me I was a serial monogamist. I must’ve taken it personally, because I remained deliberately single for years. I spent a lot of time at The Apple Pan alone, and it remains my favorite restaurant in L.A. Plus, I was always able to squeeze into its U-shaped counter as a single diner. I ordered the same burger each time: A Hickory Burger. “With cheese?” one of the Dad-aged waiters would ask.
“Of course,” I’d answer.
The Hickory Burger had flaws at times. The amount of iceberg lettuce often tucked between this burger was psychotic; it was up to me to get the burger back to an appropriate ratio of meat to lettuce. The smoky hickory sauce, aka “liquid ketchup,” would overflow and ooze out all over the buns, and it’d be a huge mess. But the buns, also laden with mayo (my favorite condiment!), held together a thick-but-not-too-thick coarsely-ground meat patty. And the pickles—just a few—were placed thoughtfully along the burger’s surface. I have never not finished an entire Hickory Burger.
For years, I preferred eating my Hickory Burger solo – right up until one guy I was slowly getting to know invited himself to my favorite restaurant and said, “Stop by if you want.”
What if I didn’t want to share the Apple Pan with a man? What if I wasn’t ready?
But evidently, I was. He was just a friend at the time, or at least, that’s what I was telling myself. But my favorite burger had brought me a husband. Both are nourishing. Both are lifesavers.
My husband took this picture of me shortly after we got engaged. We went to try a burger stand in Pasadena called Super Burger, and this burger was delightfully massive. I ate the whole thing.