Hamburger America’s George Motz: Did You Know White Castle Was Once a Burger Pioneer?


Yesterday, we talked to Hamburger America author and all-around burger expert George Motz about — what else? — hamburgers. Today, he reveals what he likes to eat when there is no burger in sight and blows our mind with White Castle’s hand in burger history.

Now that you’ve mastered the hamburger, is there another food item you’d like to tackle?

The deeper I go with the hamburger, the better it gets. And I think I’ve barely scratched the surface. People keep asking, “What’s your favorite?” The problem is the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Every day this goes on I get further and further from being able to choose a favorite and closer and closer to really understanding what the hamburger’s all about. Looking into the future I have no time to concentrate on any other food right now except for the hamburger, which is fine with me.

And you have an app that goes with the book?

The next step is that we’re in development with the Travel Channel to make Hamburger America into a TV show. That’s the next step. We’ll go back to the restaurants and talk to the people on camera. Also, this Friday, the Hamburger America app is releasing. I get one or two emails a day from friends and family saying, “Hey, I’m in Minneapolis, what do I do?” And I’ll actually guide them , step by step, to the next great burger. And then a friend of mine said, “Obviously you need to create an app because this would save a lot of your time.” So, we created an app that has 1,500 restaurants in it.

What are some of your favorites in New York?

Minetta Tavern makes a fantastic burger. Nobody can get in, unfortunately. I tried to do the math once and a new burger place opens up in New York probably every two weeks. It’s really, really hard to keep up. I don’t want to play favorites. I have a lot of favorites in every borough. A place in Queens called Burger Garage just opened up. It’s amazing. There’s JG Melon, a classic on the Upper East Side. I love Schnipper’s on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Also fantastic. I’m a fan of Shake Shack. I don’t like their Shack sauce. It’s weird the way it covers everything up.

What about chains? What if you’re in a culinary wasteland? Is there a big chain that you’d go for?

I know where all the meat comes from. That usually helps. One of my favorites in the Midwest is Steak ‘n Shake. They’ve been doing the same thing for almost 75 years. They serve fresh ground beef. They’re making an old-style smashed hamburger. That was basically perfected by the original White Castle. They’re still doing it at Steak ‘n Shake. And now Five Guys is on it, as well.

Wait a second. White Castle?

White Castle is probably one of the most important hamburger restaurants in the history of the burger. They actually invented the hamburger bun. And so, technically, they invented the hamburger. The hamburger is something that is defined as chopped ground beef and then put on a bun, not on toast, not on bread. They made it so it was portable, easy food. But White Castle has completely lost its way since the good old days of the ’20s and ’30s.

Hard to believe.

There’s still places all over the country that serve burgers the way White Castle originally did that never changed. That’s why I wanted to follow the hamburger DNA. You have to go to a place that tried to copy White Castle 80 years ago. That’s why I wrote the book. I want people to realize that White Castle was really the shit. They started a hamburger revolution in the 1920s, but they couldn’t hold on to it unfortunately.

What do you eat when you’re not eating hamburgers?

Smoothies. Salads. I’m not kidding. I take care of myself. I go to the gym every day. I consider my hamburger intake to be a privilege, not a right. And I treat my body as such. I want to be able to enjoy as many hamburgers as possible.

What is your guilty pleasure now that it’s not hamburgers?

Honestly, my guilty pleasure is a bacon sandwich. That is the truth. Literally, I take four slices of bacon and put it on white toast with mayo. There’s nothing better than that. Maybe the hamburger, but that’s a great guilty pleasure right there.

What’s next for you?

I’m the director of something called the NYC Food Film Festival. We show food films submitted by filmmakers. It’s a regular competitive film festival. We actually make the food that you see on the screen, so when you’re in the audience and you’re thinking, “Oh wow, I’d like to have that food right now,” suddenly it’s in front of you. It’s a lot of fun. It will run for four days this year. We moved it from June to October. We’re in our fifth year. We just finished the screening process and we have some unbelievable films coming out this year.