RALEIGH — May is National Beef Month and Sunday, May 29, is National Hamburger Day. While North Carolina is a world leader in poultry and hogs, it ranks in the middle of the pack (34th) for beef and cattle production with 363,000 head statewide. Texas leads the nation with more than 4 million head of beef cattle, according to the USDA. Randolph County leads the Old North State with more than 16,000 head, followed by Chatham, Wilkes, Duplin and Iredell. While the state might not lead in production, North Carolina has a hamburger tradition that distinguishes it from the pack. The traditional Carolina style burger is a staple at cookouts from Murphy to Manteo. The national burger chain Wendy’s even has a version called the Carolina Classic Burger.
A traditional Carolina style burger consists of six simple ingredients: bun, beef, mustard, onion, chili and slaw. In many parts of the state you can order this burger by simply asking for a hamburger “all the way.”The order of those ingredients, and the addition of cheese is a matter of debate. While some purists go without cheese on their Carolina burger, Sherry Duncan of the Carolina Stockyard Restaurant in Siler City says “98 percent of my customers order theirs with cheese.” Duncan, who co-owns the Stockyard restaurant with Robert Crabb, said the order of the ingredients is more of a function of timing than taste. She said orders that will be eaten immediately are best with mustard, onions and slaw below the burger and the chili on the top. But, if the burger is going to be taken on the road, she recommends all of the condiments be on top of the burger to prevent a soggy bun.
In contrast to the Stockyard, Snoopy’s in Raleigh always puts the mustard, onion and chili under the burger and the slaw on top. According to manager Dennis Phillips, Snoopy’s wraps all of its product to go and consistently puts everything on the bottom bun except the cheese and the slaw. Both the Stockyard and Snoopy’s have their culinary reasons for their condiment ordering, but both admit the order comes from tradition and habit more than anything else. Duncan said she makes her burger the same way as the previous owner of the restaurant, and Dennis said their selection is “just the Snoopy’s way.”
With respect to buns, there is not broad consensus on the question of bun toasting. Duncan said toasting prevents the bun from becoming soggy, but that the Stockyard toasts buns by request. At Raleigh’s Snoopy’s, they stick with a steamed bun. Whether you like your slaw on the top or the bottom, there’s no two ways about the fact that the Carolina burger is a tasty reminder of Down Home as you head into Memorial Day weekend and National Hamburger Day.