I’ve always loved simple food. When I was growing up, my mom, Beatrice Bennett, waitressed at King’s Donuts, a Harlem luncheonette next door to the Apollo Theater. My sister, Estelle, and I would stop there on the way home from school, and my mom would stick us downstairs in the employees lounge to do our homework. After about an hour and a half, she let us come upstairs and sit at the counter; booths were for big-time customers.
Estelle and I always had burgers and fries with a Coke. They toasted the buns. I loved those burgers! Medium well, the way I still like them. I’d look out the window onto 125th Street, see lines around the block for the Apollo and get this pang in my stomach: That’s what I want — lines around the block for me!
The Apollo’s owner had a crush on my mother. She was the only one he let make his burgers and sandwiches. So when Mom asked him if Estelle and I could do Amateur Night at the Apollo, he naturally said yes.
In those days, it was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials — boy groups. So we figured, let Cousin Ira sing lead. I’m 11 — he’s a couple of years younger. We get out there; Ira opens his mouth and nothing comes out. Can you imagine? I grabbed the mic and sang a Frankie Lymon song. The audience loved me! I had this attitude — streetwise. That’s when the ball started to roll for me.
My mom’s burgers at home were even better than the ones she made at work. She’d take an onion, then chop and chop and chop till the pieces were really tiny. She said that that way, the next day my breath wouldn’t smell of onions. It was so yummy! If we ran out of buns, we’d toast Wonder Bread. Simple things taste the best. Every time I have a burger, I think of her and growing up in Harlem. It was a real neighborhood then. Candy stores had big jars of pickles, with tongs to pull one out. I’d try to get the biggest one, and Mrs. Rutenberg, behind the counter, would say, “Now, Veronica, take the one on top — all the juice is spilling!”
Everybody was looking out their windows and knew one another. My grandmother lived across the street from City College and watched us out the window: “Don’t you go around that corner!” When my dad, Louis, wasn’t working in the subway yards, he’d take me across the street to Sherman’s Bar B.Q.; I used to sell lemonade to college students for two cents a cup, on the sidewalk there.
Today, when my oldest son visits, I’ll make my special hamburger. It’s a combination of the King’s Donuts burger and my mom’s. I chop up the onion and shape the meat into patties. I use a little avocado oil to cook them in — that’s my modern twist.
1 small onion
1½ pounds 80/20 ground beef
Ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons avocado oil
4 slices American cheese
4 old-fashioned packaged hamburger rolls or 8 slices Wonder Bread
Ketchup and mustard
Chop the onion finely; mix it with the ground beef. Form into 4 equal patties. Sprinkle salt and pepper on each side of the patties.
Add the avocado oil to the skillet. Warm the pan on medium heat for 4 or 5 minutes.
Add the patties and cook, flipping once, until they turn out the way you like them—approximately 4 to 5 minutes on each side for medium well. (For cheeseburgers, top each with 1 slice American cheese after cooking the second side for 3 or 4 minutes.) The burgers should sizzle and give you a great crust if the temperature is just right.
While the burgers are cooking, toast the buns or bread. Squirt a little ketchup and mustard on one side of each bun.
Put each burger on a bun. Get out a jar of supermarket pickles, and pour yourself a Coke. Have a bite—it’ll be like you stepped into Ronnie Spector’s kitchen!
Nutrients per serving: 478 calories, 35g protein, 25g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 25g fat, 101mg cholesterol, 552mg sodium