In the pantheon of southern food, few dishes are more misunderstood or maligned than the slugburger. Despite its name, this specialty of North Mississippi diners, drugstores, and cafés has a distinguished past, steeped in the history of the South. The practice of stretching meat with cheaper ingredients was widespread in America during the 1920s–30s, but the term slugburger is primarily a phenomenon of the Mississippi hill country.
Slugburgers are usually formed into thin patties and cooked so that they are crunchy on the outside but remain soft on the inside. Among the best-known purveyors of slugburgers are the White Trolley Café and Borroum’s Drug Store, both in Corinth, the industrial center of the Tennessee River hills. Slugburgers are typically served on buns with yellow ballpark-style mustard, dill pickles, and chopped onions.
Although some mystery and mythology surrounds slugburgers, they never contain even a trace of crawling gastropod. They are a legacy of the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, when ground beef was a precious commodity and families stretched it as far as it would go by adding bread, cornmeal, or cheaper meats. Today, soybean meal is a common extender. In earlier times, animal fat was the preferred deep-frying medium, but vegetable oils are commonly used now.
The origin of the name is clouded with debate, but the most commonly accepted story is that the burgers sold for a nickel during the Depression, and the word slug was a slang term for a five-cent piece. Others theorize that overindulgence will cause a diner to feel as if he or she has been slugged in the stomach. In other parts of the South, bread-extended burgers have been labeled wish burgers, since those who eat them often wish for a higher percentage of meat and less bread. In other locales, the sandwiches are simply called bread burgers.
The lowly slugburger has been catapulted to tourist attraction status in North Mississippi. Main Street Corinth hosts an annual Slugburger Festival each July on the Alcorn County Courthouse Square, with food vendors and local entertainment. Even though Corinthians try to debunk the garden critter notion, the logo for the annual Slugburger Festival has featured a smiling green snail, complete with teeth and tongue. The Gourmand’s Guide to Dining in and around Corinth labels the slugburger a “local delicacy” and describes the obligatory squeeze of mustard as a “standard garnish.”
Although it is a novelty for tourists and a subject for local jokesters, the slugburger is a lasting reminder of southern resourcefulness during hard times.
- Southern Foodways Alliance website, “A Hamburger by Any Other Name,” http://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/a-hamburger-by-any-other-name/
- John T. Edge, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South (2007)
- Willie Morris and David Rae Morris, My Mississippi (2000)
- Milton Sandy Jr., The Gourmand’s Guide to Dining in and around Corinth (1992)
- Regina Smith, manager of the White Trolley Café, interview by Fred Sauceman (11 July 2003)