What is a slugburger, and why do Mississippians love it?

Posted: January 7, 2020 in Did you know?
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slug_burgerNorthern Mississippi is obsessed with the slugburger; entire festivals and eating contests are devoted to this regional dish. There, if you want something other than a slugburger, you have to specify you want an "all-meat burger" instead. Otherwise, one of these humble burgers will arrive on your plate.

Don’t worry, this dish generations of Mississippians adore doesn’t have any slimy, shell-less gastropods in it. The burger and it’s head-turning name are a reflection of Depression-era ingenuity. During that time period, meat was at a premium.

So, cash-strapped and resourceful cooks began incorporating fillers like potato flakes, breadcrumbs or flour to make the meat last. Diners, drive-ins, drugstores and roadside stands sold burgers made with this mix for a nickel, also known as a "slug." Thus the burger earned its nickname.

At least that’s its moniker in Corinth, Mississippi, where Borroum’s Drug Store, founded in 1865, is still serving them today. You’ll also find them going by that name over in Iuka.

In Tupelo, you’ll find them at Johnnie’s Drive In by the name "doughburger." At Tupelo’s annual festival, they’re known as "Dudie burgers," named after the now-shuttered Dudie’s Diner, which also made the burgers a staple after Truman "Dudie" Christian opened a hamburger joint in a railcar after World War II.

Who invented the slugburger? As with many generations-old, Southern-fried recipes, its exact origins are vague. Some say John Weeks, of Weeksburgers, created the dish in Corinth. Today, Willie Weeks operates Weeks’ Diner in Booneville, carrying on the family tradition.

Other tellers point to Borroum’s as the slugburger’s birthplace. Of course, most restaurateurs are eager to claim the burger as their own. It seems mostly to be a case of a good idea catching on fast as restaurants across the region adopted the dish and put their own spins on it.

Most cooks also fiercely guard their recipes, but the variations are generally takes on the one at Borroum’s Drug Store. The recipe uses pork meat blended with soybean meal, salt and flour. Cooks pack the burgers into thin patties – the skinnier, the better, since that makes for a crispier patty when fried in peanut oil. The disc is served sizzling hot on a plain, white bun with pickles, mustard and onion.

"You know, Southerners love their onion," says Debbie Mitchell, whose husband and mother-in-law, Lex and Camille, own Borroum’s. "That’s the traditional way, but you can get anything on them that you like."

Other versions use beef for the meat. In either case, the burger is crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. It finishes with a vinegary-tang from the customary toppings.

doughburgerEven after the Great Depression, this little burger proved its mettle. The state, and this corner in particular, has remained economically depressed (Mississippi often lands last in lists of the poorest states in the U.S.). Slugburgers stretch the dollar, feeding families on limited budgets.

Elvis Presley, who was born and lived in Tupelo until the age of 13, was even raised on the burgers. The rock ‘n roll legend would stop in Johnnie’s Drive In with his friends after school to get a slugburger and an RC cola. The burger joint, which opened in 1945 and is the longest-running restaurant in Tupelo, even has a booth named in his honor today.

The slugburger, or doughburger, remains affordable. At Johnnie’s, it will run you $1.35. At Borroum’s, it costs $1.95, and comes with a bag of chips on the side.

But there’s more to this burger’s popularity than finances. "It’s still a good burger," says Don Knight, owner of Johnnie’s. "A lot of people grew up eating them. Grandfathers, fathers and grandsons. Kids are raised up on them. And then they bring their kids out here to eat and keep the tradition going on."

The food festivals also introduce new generations of diners. The Slugbuger Festival in Corinth has been an annual tradition since 1988. The festival’s eating contest has even attracted the likes of Joey Chestnut, a competitive eater who downed 35 burgers at the 2017 festival.

Still, the professional fell short of the record, which stands at 43 burgers in 10 minutes. The trim burger does seem designed for this type of gorgefest, but most Mississippians eat them at a more leisurely pace with family and friends.

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