When I was a little girl, my mother would take me out to lunch once a month. One of my favorite places to eat was the Jade Room Restaurant contained within one of St. Louis' two big department stores, Famous-Barr (now Macy's). This was back in the day when people would dress to go out to dine. No slacks allowed! A hostess would seat us, and while we waited for our meals, beautifully dressed models would walk among the tables wearing the latest fashions available in the store, well-accessorized, and bearing the fragrance du jour. Sometimes they would stop at our table and describe what they were wearing, its price and size availability. For a ten-year-old girl like me, it was magical! Sometimes my dad would meet us for lunch, but mostly it was just mother and me. My lunch order never varied: hamburger, chocolate milk, and Jell-O.
As I got older the lunches continued, but the dress code relaxed and the menu changed. No longer did I order the hamburger, but the John White Burger, a decadent hamburger sandwich with crispy onions and melted cheese. I crave that burger to this day. It was named for one of the cooks from the Clayton location of Famous-Barr, and was eventually offered at all of May Company's department-store restaurants. It stayed on the menus until White died and his heirs sued over use of the name.
In 2000, Eric Dahl, longtime chef for Famous-Barr, told Judith Evans of the Post-Dispatch the secret to the burger is the onions. Slice them thinly, and then cook in 1/2 inch of hot oil or shortening. Remove onions when they are light brown; if you cook them too long, they will become bitter. Drain well on paper towels. To assemble the burgers, use toasted buns, grilled or broiled hamburger patties made from ground beef that is 85 percent lean, the onions, and a rarebit sauce thick enough to stay on the burgers.
Dahl said the sauce included American cheese, dry mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. Here is a recipe that seems to fit the bill, at least it certainly pleased me this evening!
RAREBIT SAUCE FOR JOHN WHITE BURGERS
1/2 pound American cheese, cut into thin slices
3/4 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Place cheese in the top of a double boiler. Add half-and-half, Worcestershire and mustard. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cheese melts.
Yield: 4 servings.
Recipe adapted from The Fairy Tale Cookbook by Carol MacGregor.