What did beef ever do to central Connecticut? If steamed cheeseburgers are the payback, it must have been something heinous.
Central Connecticut, and especially the town of Meriden, is famous for cheeseburgers made in a steam cabinet. Yes, that’s right. They are deprived of fire and are cooked instead with hot droplets of water. Like broccoli. Or your Aunt Rhoda at the gym. (In New Haven, Louis’ Lunch serves an entirely different kind of burger.)
Let’s just say up front that even chemistry speaks against steaming as an optimum way to cook meat. Without fire or direct heat, you lose the caramelization that gives the burger its character. Instead, steamed cheeseburgers begin life as mounds of bright red meat and finish as dull gray rectangles of protein.
But try telling that to the burgers’ fans. Ted’s Restaurant is the undisputed king of the steamed cheeseburger and at noon on a Wednesday every vinyl-topped stool at the lunch counter is taken. Customer Bob Ferris has been coming for decades, and says he drops in whenever he’s in the neighborhood.
“Every time I come down this way I gotta stop and have one,” says Ferris, who lives about 25 minutes away in Newington, Conn.
Opened in 1959, Ted’s today is owned and run by family member Bill Foreman, who can be found working the steam box most days. He serves about 18 dozen burgers a day to a clientele that he says is half local, half tourist. He shrugs off suggestions from a customer that “some guys in Bristol” are also doing steamed cheeseburgers.
“Lots of people are trying to do them, but it’s kind of reinventing the wheel,” Foreman says.
Of course, the obvious question is why invent that wheel in the first place? Why not just grill or griddle the burgers, like everyone else? Forman says the tradition began during a construction boom in the early 1900s when lunches were needed at building sites. “You can’t take a grill with you,” he says. “They made a primitive steam truck and used it to cook sandwiches.”
Another theory is that steaming was de rigeur at the time, part of a health craze that shunned fried foods. That part of the story has stuck around. “I kid myself by saying it’s low fat,” burger fan Ferris says.
But what you really want to know is how it tastes. It tastes … OK. It gets the job done. Ted’s philosophy is that steaming allows the best possible flavor for the burger. It does seem to keep the meat moist. And it does produce a gooey blanket of cheese. But in the end, it tastes like steamed meat. And I’m pretty sure that steamed meat is just one of the reasons the colonies went to war against the British.
But push that all aside. Push that way down in your rational mind. The steamed cheeseburger may be one of the only truly regional foods left. We cling to these things because they connect us to our collective past. So get over the fact that it may not be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted and sidle up to the lunch counter at Ted’s next time you’re tooling through the Constitution State. Watching Foreman work the wacky steam box is worth the trip on its own.