Hamburger festivals, special events have participants flipping

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Ed Suba Jr., Akron Beacon Journal
No, it's not a scene from a George Romero movie. Don Drenski celebrates while drenched in ketchup after defeating Shelby Armes, left, in a "bob-off" to win the "Bobbing for Burgers" contest at last year's National Hamburger Festival in Akron. Contestants bobbed for foam burgers in a baby pool filled with ketchup. This year's festival is next weekend.
By Bob Batz Jr.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There's a lot that's tasty about the National Hamburger Festival, happening next weekend in Akron, Ohio, which is, some say, the burger's birthplace.

Saturday evening, at least 15 restaurants in that region will vie in the Best Burger Competition to determine who serves the Best Traditional and Most Creative Burger.

Next Sunday, individual civilian cooks will be pitted against each other over grills in a similar cook-off.

There's the Ohio Hamburger Eating Championships on Saturday, too, in which professional eaters vie to see how many they can hoov down in 10 minutes.

But for pure competitive spectacle, it'd be hard to beat Saturday night's "Bobbing for Burgers," in which plucky entrants have three minutes to pluck with their lips as many foam hamburgers as possible from a baby pool filled with ketchup.

They call it the "ketchup bowl."

This second-annual event will be staged at Akron's Lock 3 Park from noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 (children get in free), and some of the proceeds go to Akron Children's Hospital, which last year received $5,000.

You can even buy a festival edition of a Jughead comic book, and have it autographed by Archie series artist Craig Boldman, to benefit the hospital.

It may seem a little cheesy -- there's even a Miss Hamburger Pageant -- but it's all in good fun. The event is organized by the same promoter who does the National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, Drew Cerza, president/CEO of the RMI Promotion Group of the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville. He goes so far as to call Akron "the Hamburger Capital of the World."

Interestingly, last year's festival staged a 45-minute mock trial to determine where the hamburger was invented, as at least three other places claimed that distinction. Those "Hamburger Hearings" resulted in a hung jury, and subsequent online voting landed Seymour, Wis., on top, just ahead of Akron.

Mr. Cerza is teasing that this year there could be an appeal.

Akron's story is that locals Frank and Charles Menches created the sandwich in 1885, the same year others say Charles Nagreen did it in Seymour (which holds its own Burger Fest Aug. 4). The other claimants at the hearing represented New Haven, Conn. (1900), and Athens, Texas (1904).

But some say the Menches first served their ground beef-instead-of-sausage patties at the fair in Erie County, N.Y., where the town of Hamburg also claims to be the burger birthplace and namesake, and will celebrate with is own Burgerfest on Saturday.

It's a hotly debated subject.

Menches Brothers restaurants, with locations in Akron and nearby Uniontown, Ohio, still offer what they say is the brothers' original recipe, spiced with coffee and brown sugar.

Menches is one of 18 eateries that will compete in categories including Best Special Sauce Burger, Best Creative Toppings Burger and Best Cheeseburger. You'll be able to buy samples of 50 types of burgers from chains such as Big Boy and Fatburger as well as from small-town institutions such as the Steel Trolley Diner.

The Lisbon, Ohio, diner is a great destination for a lower-key burger pilgrimage. A nice 60-mile drive on Route 30 -- the Lincoln Highway -- from Pittsburgh (birthplace of the Big Mac), the diner was the winner at last year's festival for "Best Sauce." But there are plenty of reasons to stop and eat there, from the baskets of real hand-cut fries and shakes to the real pies.

It's a real 1950s steel diner, one of the last made by the Jerry O'Mahoney Co. in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1954. Its home was nearby Salem, Ohio, until it was moved to Lisbon in May 1979. It was taken over in 1992 by the present owner, Jacki Hersman.

And it's open 24 hours a day, every day but Christmas.

Lots of Lincoln Highway travelers still get surprised by this combination of such a cool space with such good food.

"Isn't that a perk?" says a laughing Mrs. Hersman, who still bakes all the pies from scratch, makes macaroni-and-cheese and some other blue-plate specials, and still cans the special sauces, including those that dress the half-pound burgers.

This year, the retro-decorated diner has a new menu, which is topped with the festival award-winner, the BBQ Burger (with homemade sauce, grilled onion and shredded cheddar). But they couldn't nail up the plaque they won in the diner, points out Mrs. Hersman's son and manager, Ryan Hillman, since the walls are steel.

It offers 20 specialty burgers. They're taking to this year's festival several creative contenders. Two are from the menu:

The Elvis Burger (homemade banana jam, Jif peanut butter and bacon).

"It's a very strange combo," Mrs. Hersman acknowledges, but the brave folks who do try it, "they're addicted to it."

The Death Defying Burger (chili powder, homemade jalapeno relish, chopped jalapeno peppers, horseradish mayonnaise and side of hot sauce).

She and her son cooked up two others that eventually could make it to the menu:

The Johnny Appleseed Burger (homemade apple pie jam, grilled onions and shredded cheddar).

Samurai Burger (homemade sweet and sour sauce, grilled onions and grilled pineapple).

She's now also selling many of her canned sauces -- from the barbecue sauce to the banana and apple-pie jams, plus an unusual ketchup and even marinara sauce -- as part of a new "specialty food" line.

And in other news, they're expanding into the building next door, which later this year will open as "The Caboose," which will serve the entire diner menu, plus alcoholic drinks, as well as some more upscale items, such as, say, a pesto burger.

The business' burgerness is a bit counterintuitive, considering that she and her son both are vegetarians.

But they now have several specialty vegetarian burgers, too.

As well as specialty shakes. This month's flavors: Mojito (lime with mint), pina colada and raspberry lemonade.

More surprises for the hungry Lincoln Highway traveler.

When Mrs. Hersman and her husband bought the diner, she was interested in it more as a history buff, she says -- for the nostalgia. "The food end has just kind of progressed. But now I love that end of it, too."

The Steel Trolley Diner's phone number is 1-330-424-3663.

It's on the way to the National Hamburger Festival if you take Route 30 to Canton and then head north to Akron.

Phil Masturzo, Akron Beacon Journal
David "Coondog" O'Karma joined in the festivities at Menches Brothers Restaurant in Akron's Canal Park baseball stadium in April to announce the National Hamburger Festival in Akron, Ohio. Coondog holds a 15-pound burger as the festival founder Drew Cerza of Williamsville, N.Y., is behind.
Click photo for larger image.
Related Coverage:

Back roads of Lincoln Highway still charm


National Hamburger Festival

When: Sat., noon to 10:30 p.m.; next Sun., noon to 7 p.m.

Where: Lock 3 Park, Akron, Ohio.

Admission: $5. Children free.

For more on the festival, visit www.hamburgerfestival.com, which has information on all the participating restaurants.



Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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