White Castle Hamburgers--for Some, a Taste of Nostalgia

This column is by Times staff writer Tim Waters

Only one question was on the mind of Malinda Levine last Saturday morning when she stopped at the Hawthorne Christian School on Prairie Avenue while driving to work.

"I just want to see if the White Castle burgers that they're selling are the real thing," the 37-year-old Hughes Aircraft Co. worker said as she jumped out of her car. "Where are they from anyway? Do you know?"

Levine was told that the burgers were genuine, trucked in frozen from Ohio. Satisfied with the answer, she walked into the school and paid $30 for a box of 60. She left smiling.

Minutes later, Barbara McGowan stopped at the school, strolled in and counted out $120 in cash for four boxes of the burgers. "You'll be open until 4 o'clock, won't you?" she asked. "I might want to come back, but I don't know yet."

Harold Cook is used to such scenes. For the past year or so, the 45-year-old Westminster resident has spent a number of his weekends hawking the legendary White Castle hamburgers from the back of a rental truck, splitting the profits with organizations such as the private Hawthorne school in return for using their premises.

While the entrepreneurial spirit drives him, Cook said it is also a labor of love. He grew up near Detroit eating the 2-ounce, 2 1/2-inch-square, onion-scented, steam-cooked White Castle hamburgers, and missed them when he moved to California. White Castle, founded 54 years ago in Wichita, Kan., and believed by many to be the first restaurant to offer a "fast food menu" to its customers, operates outlets only in nine states, none in the West.

"It's a nostalgia thing," said Cook, a general manager for a tool manufacturer. "I've never known of anything that has the same flavor. It's hard to describe. It's just something that sticks in your mind."

On this particular morning, Cook spent the early morning fretting over the weather. The clouds had not yet burned off, and he feared that the bleak skies would scare off customers, even though his price was lower than what White Castle fans who call the firm's toll free number would pay to have the burgers shipped by air ($82 for 100, $57 for 50).

A steady stream of customers, many of them transplanted Easterners and Midwesterners who also grew up buying the hamburgers from the firm's distinctive porcelain-enameled buildings, came and went, but their numbers paled in comparison to the hundreds who Cook and school officials said had dropped by the campus on a Saturday two weeks earlier to purchase the burgers and, in turn, help the school buy new playground equipment.

"People who didn't even know each other were talking with each other like they did," said Paula Snead, the school's office manager. "They were saying things like they hadn't had a White Castle burger for 20 years or 25 years. We hooked up a microwave and some people didn't even wait until they got home to eat the things. One man put one of the burgers in his mouth and hollered like he was on a roller coaster."

Not all of those who drove to the school last Saturday, however, were wild about the pint-sized burgers. Several apparently would prefer a Big Mac and fries over a box of the White Castle burgers and the complimentary Styrofoam cup of dill pickles that Cook threw in.

"My girlfriend is from Michigan and she goes crazy over these hamburgers," said Bruce Rosin, 33. His expression was as solemn as the skies. "I don't really care for them myself. Three bites and they're gone. They just don't taste like hamburgers."

But Rosin was clearly outnumbered. "We kind of bought these things out of tradition," said Dick Campbell, another Hughes employee who came to the school last Saturday. "And I thought I'd give my kids a crack at these since they are hamburger connoisseurs."

"My wife and I thought it would be kind of fun," said 44-year-old Bob McHugh, who said he hadn't tasted a White Castle hamburger for more than 20 years. "As I remember, they are not very big. And they're kind of square."

While McHugh couldn't recall too much about the burgers, and admitted he was buying them more for novelty's sake than anything else, others swore that the burgers, nicknamed "gut-busters" by some, were the best-tasting around.

"It tastes like something mother would fix especially for you," said McGowan, the woman who bought four boxes. "It's more like home cooking to me. They're small, true, but they're not like regular hamburgers. And it's just like the potato chip commercial. You can't eat just one of the things."

"They're just a little simple hamburger," said Levine, who found the "teeny bun and the teeny bit of meat" appealing.

So does Harold Cook. With a truckload of the burgers, he himself doesn't face a shortage. He said he regularly eats three or four of the burgers about three times a week. Indeed, describing the burger to a visitor, Cook found it hard to contain himself as he peeled the wax paper from one of the burgers to reveal its makeup.

"Ummmm. Where's that microwave?"

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