Saturday, April 25, 2009

Make Mine Plain!

Take a pile of sliced onions, several dozen tennis ball-sized wads of ground beef, pour on some water, turn up the heat, add a hundred years and you have another Tale of Wisconsin Hystory.
In 1909 Pete Gokey pushed out a cart full of "just good eatin'". In 2009 the members of the Gokey family are still flipping these quarter pound (or so) morsels of Hystory. Truly Prairie du Chein has a lot to offer. In previous blogs you've heard about the "Fountain of Blueth" and the "New Years Eve Carp Drop". Now let me introduce you to Pete's.
My Story: In July 1909 Pete Gokey and some of his buddies were playing around down on Blackhawk Avenue, Prairie du Chein. Being a painter, Pete didn't have a lot of pelt. (fur trading was still the big business in '09) The guys were in the mood for a good game of baseball but with the high value of pelts, leather was very rare and not to be wasted making baseballs and mitts. But, there was plenty of the stuff that was left over after the pelts were removed. The boys tried a lot of substitutes, loins, chops and even some filet mignon (Prairie had a large French population back then). The effort was fairly unsuccessful. First of all it was very messy and secondly it was hard to make an accurate throw with the odd shaped missiles. (although you can really throw a wicked curve with a pork chop) Putting their collective noggins together they found, what they thought was a solution to their hankering. Pete recalled watching a group of Italian traders who had come up the river from St Louis. They would grind up hunks of meat, form it into balls, (about regulation major league size) and cook them up in tomato sauce with a lot of garlic and serve them with long thin loaves of bread. Are you starting to see where this going? Well, Pete did. He ground up hunks of meat. He found that beef chuck worked best because it had just the right amount of fat to hold it together. The long thin loaves of bread were hard to come by but there were plenty of bones leftover from the pelt biz. Voila! The bat. Without taking time to cook the balls up the kids took the field. Wouldn't you know, on the very first pitch Pete whacked a burger ball across the field, straight into a pan of onion soup that one of the French fur traders was cooking (french onion soup?). In anger the Frenchman smacked the beef ball flat with a big wooden spoon. When he fished out the patty some of the cooked onions came out with it, he flipped it all aside where it landed on some bread he had set out to eat with his soup. The burger and onions barely landed on the bread when a passing traveler grabbed it up, flipped the French guy a dime and bit into the very first Pete's Burger. Soon folks from all over the area came looking for the new food sensation that they had heard about. The enterprising Pete, got busy trying to duplicate the accidental process that spawned the tasty treat. In no time at all he figured it out and ta da, a hundred years later, Pete's Hamburger lives on. You might look back and realize how significant this event was. Pete's Hamburger was born. The the long thin bread inspired the shape of today's baseball bat. Baseballs are wound with string around a solid core, very similar to spaghetti and meat balls. The Arch in St. Louis may been the model for a very, very large hamburger chain. And the dime burger is now three bucks. (Not a bad increase in a hundred years)
Here's what others will try to tell you: When you eat at Pete's Hamburgers, you have a choice -- plain or with onions. Forget about the lettuce -- they don't offer it. Don't ask for cheese -- they don't stock it. Don't expect a pickle -- there aren't any. And don't look for a menu. For 100 years, Pete's Hamburgers has had only one menu item. They sell hamburgers, grilled with water just as they were when Pete Gokey first set up his pushcart in Prairie du Chien in 1909. In the decades that have followed, nothing much has changed. They are still grilling the hamburgers with water, they are still only open on weekends, and the Gokeys are still flipping the hamburgers. And people are still flocking to the cart. It must be the hamburgers that bring them back because it can't be the ambiance. There is little shade available and nowhere to sit but the sidewalk. The cart has been a summer fixture that draws hamburger lovers back to Prairie du Chien year after year. Every once in a while, you get a newcomer to the cart. They are easy to spot, because they will ask for a hot dog or something else besides a hamburger. The next thing you will notice is that no one gets served before the entire batch is cooked. Then one by one the customers, in orderly fashion, file up to one of the windows and order. "one with", "two with", "four, two with, two without" and so on. Cans of pop and bags of chips are available as well as ketsup and mustard if you like. You pay up and grab your bag of goodies and head off to an empty bench or curb along Blackhawk Avenue. Or, you can jump back into your car and drive down to The River where you can find a bench and watch the "Mighty Miss" roll by. Friday, with this blog in mind, I drove over to Prairie to take some photos of Petes. As I approached I caught a whiff of the familiar burger aroma and I was hooked. I shot a few pics and headed home, waited for Jo to arrive home from work, gave her a little while to wind down from a hectic week at LE, suggested that we go out to dinner and................

Huck Finn couldn't have enjoyed
the river front any more than this!

A full grill cookin' up another bunch of
Pete's "grilled in water" burgers.

Customers patiently wait for
the next batch to come off the grill.