scene in a cafe

A Tale of Two Burgers

A Tale of Two Burgers

A short retelling of the ancient legend of burger 1 and burger 2.

Once upon a time, there was a small child who had been brought up to eat and drink, while checking carefully for any possible poisons that might have slipped in. This was fairly normal, or so the child thought. They (for at the time, the small child did not recognize gender except insofar as men persons seemed to drink martinis (though women persons did that too on some occasions) and women persons had perfume bottles and a strange red lipstick that came out before public outings. Anyway, they noticed people rejecting food that seemed perfectly ok, except it was different than usual. Sometimes there seemed to be a good reason, like hair on the plate, or old lipstick on the glass. Then nothing could be touched.

It was tiring. And frequently the results of the assessment meant that good dinners sat there until curious waiters picked up the plates. Then there would be toast later. Toast generally seemed safe.

It’s supposed to be a short retelling, so let’s speed it up. The years went by, and food tasted of not very much. Large plates of pasta, sandwiches with cheese that tasted as colorless as it looked. When the child was small, they were allowed to eat small amounts of raw hamburger, which they considered to be a delicacy. This was burger 1. The beginning of all things. Then that was moved to the list of unsafe items. The child was sad, but it was explained that there was nothing that could be done.

The funny thing was, there were so many foods that were supposed to be all right, but turned out to be bad. Frozen meatloaf gave you high blood pressure. Potato chips made with cottonseed oil filled you with chemicals that killed bugs. But everyone smiled. This is what people ate. Normal people.

The child was beginning to suspect something was up, but it was difficult to know who to believe. Everyone smiled! Stupid, they thought, to think a poisoner would reveal themselves. But if everyone smiled, then many smiles must be false.

It was a problem. And the child was getting mightily tired of toast, however nice and comforting the two slices of crunchy warm bread with gently burnt edges could be after a long day of being smiled at.

Then one day, the child had to voyage to a land far away. It was so far that they weren’t quite sure where they were. It all felt like a dream, and people spoke in different languages.

No one was smiling, but they all seemed busy and occupied with their own thoughts. It would be impossible to know anything here, the child thought. Maybe it was different here. It certainly felt different. Nothing smelled the same, and the streets were clean. The child had been warned it was a very dangerous place. They kept looking for people smiling, but of course, there were none.

Finally, the child was very hungry. There was nothing for it but to venture into one of the places with tables both inside and out. They sat down, and watched what people were eating. Imagine their astonishment when they saw that the table just on the other side of them, near the window, were served with what looked like burger 1. Burger 1! Was it still possible then? Why hadn’t they told them? Was there a reason it could be eaten here?

The waiter came over, and said something that the child hoped meant “what do you want to eat?” but they didn’t understand. So trying very hard not to smile, like they had been taught to do at any moment of anxiety, they pointed to the table with the large white plates that had what remained of the lookalike of burger 1. They sighed. “Burger 1?” The waiter looked at them, then at the plate, then back at them, and said something. The child nodded and hoped it was right. The waiter didn’t smile, which they found reassuring, and went off in a rush, yelling something through the small window that seemed to lead to the kitchen.

The child sat there, and watched the people going by. All this time, they thought, so many things were unavailable. Yet here they are. They had an image in their mind of burger 1, small, on a white porcelain plate with a maroon and gold rim. They had been happy then, or so they thought. They felt an indescribable tenderness towards everyone in this strange place, who didn’t smile, yet seemed happy. Where they came from, everyone smiled, but no one seemed happy.

The waiter came back in a little while, with a large white plate. And on it was a burger. It was more elaborate than burger 1, but the resemblance was striking. The child felt as though they had been reunited with an old memory, like a teddy bear with a bit of grime and half a button for an eye. The child nodded. The waiter stood there for a moment, watching and waiting. Perhaps he tests all the food, they thought, and needs to see what happens to me.

What will happen to me? And for a moment, all the strictures and laws that had been part of daily life came rushing back. Was it like sin? Would the punishment be the end, the end of everything?

The waiter was still watching. The child lifted the fork and chipped away at the edge of the circle, and came away with a small piece. This they raised to their lips, and murmuring a silent prayer, they opened their mouth and popped it in before any more thoughts could rush past, like sewage after a flood.

They closed their eyes and chewed. It still existed, somewhere, happiness. And burger 1.

The waiter looked down at the child. Their eyes were closed, and there was a small air of contentment. They look so hungry, he thought. Like they are being chased.

The child felt his eyes on them and opened their own. Looking up, they said “thank you.” They didn’t want to cry with the waiter standing there and the way he was looking was making that more and more possible. “Burger 2,” the child said, “is so much like burger 1.”

The waiter nodded, and satisfied that he had fed someone properly today, turned away. He thought of the look on the child’s face, and was glad he had seen it.

And that is the legend of burger 1 and burger 2.