On our way back from Memphis, we took a lengthy detour to try some burgers which a favorite food and travel book had championed.
There are a few books in our hobby that every blogger or writer should own, and which many travelers and foodies happily shelve in their library already. Some Calvin Trillin, of course, and John T. Edge’s Southern Belly, but perhaps one of the most entertaining reads of all is George Motz’s Hamburger America. I say this despite the temptation to throw the book across the room when I first cracked it. Alabama isn’t represented at all, and Georgia gets a single entry (Ann’s Snack Bar), but, once my petulant aggravation passed – I’m kidding, readers – I was pleased to see that a handful of restaurants that we’ve featured here are also in the book’s pages. These include South 21, What-a-Burger, Northgate Soda Shop, Rotier’s, Zarzour’s, and Dyer’s, albeit the downtown tourist Dyer’s and not the real deal out in Collierville. Seven out of 150. Oklahoma alone gets twelve. I’ve never been to Oklahoma.
Well, absent a giant check from a wealthy benefactor, we’re probably not going to visit a whole lot of the places in Motz’s book, but it remains a terrific and fun read, and it’s still handy for an occasional detour. One of two Mississippi restaurants that made his cut was only about half an hour out of our way. Amory is a small town of about 7000 some 27 miles southeast of Tupelo. We left Memphis around 1.30 and rolled out of town via I-22, arriving at Bill’s Hamburgers, which opened in 1929, two hours later.
While a few of the restaurants that we’ve visited only trace their history back to the year the present owner bought it, Bill’s goes all the way back through name changes and a long closure to hold onto that date of ’29. It was originally called Bob’s Hamburgers, and it actually shut down during World War II because of meat rationing. I found this just a little interesting, because on the other side of what’s now I-22 and north, of course, the meat rationing of the First World War and then the Depression sparked the development of what we now call slugburgers by stretching the beef in a burger with extenders like flour or oats or soy. The original owner, Bob Hill, chose to close rather than compromise the flavor of the beef that he used.
The all-beef burgers, ground fresh daily, are pressed into patties on one of the greasiest flattops that you can imagine, and served with onions and mustard (“with”) or plain (“without”). Other condiments aren’t offered, and the fries are the only things here that are frozen. Get an order of their homemade chips instead. The burgers are pretty small, and very inexpensive, just $2.10. Order two of them or get a double ($3.45) to fill you up. And definitely plan to add a splash of their hot sauce. Quite a few older burger joints around the southeast have a shaker of red pepper, but this little extra touch is appreciated and frankly a bit awesome.
So what did we think? Well, opinion was sadly split down the middle. My son and I enjoyed our burgers quite a bit. Marie and our daughter were not taken with them at all. Of course, having none of the toppings that the girlchild enjoys most didn’t help matters, but I’m afraid the ladies are in no hurry to ever return. But I liked the grease and the deep, rich flavor of the meat, and I loved the long, angular counter where we could watch the grill in action, and I really liked downtown Amory.
While admittedly there were no shops or other restaurants that called out for a return visit – it is of course very unlikely that a town of 7000 is going to support the sort of specialist book, comic, or record stores that we enjoy the most – it is a downright fantastic stretch of very old dusty buildings, a gorgeous, sun-baked old southern downtown. Even if the only real draw for people outside the area is this dark old greasy spoon diner, Amory’s a town that should be seen. If you’re ever in the Tupelo area, it is worth the detour for one of these burgers and these great old buildings.
Another fun treat was waiting for us for dessert. As we drove in, we noticed an old dairy bar, at one time a Tastee-Freez from its diamond logo days that has been doing business independently since the 1960s. It is called Dairy Kream and the teens working the window can make a pretty good soft-serve butterscotch milkshake.
There’s not a lot to the Dairy Kream, but I do love visiting these old buildings and seeing that they are still in use. Since last year, I’ve been asking every time I stop at one of these places whether I can get a cinnamon milkshake. This place, like most, doesn’t make them, but I guess the butterscotch one is not too bad of a substitute.
We were insanely behind schedule at this point, so we motored on out of town, found US-278, and made our way back to Alabama for the next stop.
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