Dora Guo

One summer day in South Florida, the temperature rose so high that even the mosquitoes were lounging in the cool shade under the larger-than-life umbrellas at Shake Shack. Since the opening of Shake Shack in my hometown only months earlier, the fast-food burger restaurant had become the center of attention, and people were flocking there like birds before winter. People trudged inside with empty stomachs and dry mouths; 30 minutes later, they strutted out with energetic smiles, all the while smelling of french fry oil and milkshakes. I can’t remember for the life of me what I ordered the first time I ate at Shake Shack — though it was most likely the ShackBurger and the Coffee Fair shake — but I can tell you who I went with: my family.

Strange as it may sound, when you think about hamburgers — gourmet, fast-food, homemade, you name it — I think of family. I think of my mom and how she always chooses the healthier route, refusing a milkshake and ordering a side salad instead. I think of my brother and how he irritatingly orders everything plain — burgers, salads, sandwiches etc. — except when it comes to pizza. But mostly, I think of my dad and how he takes my brother and me to every single new burger joint in South Florida from Miami to Palm Beach Gardens. Each week there seemed to be some new place with the supposedly “best burger.” We’ve been to more burger joints than I can count and have yet to find the “best” one, but embarking on this quest with my dad and brother to find the holy grail of burgers has, in a way, defined my childhood. It’s the memories that I created, not the burgers and malted milkshakes I scarfed down at each restaurant, that will forever linger in my heart and mind.

Malt. What even is malt? All people usually know is that it’s in Whoppers and Ovaltine, but in my family, it takes on a whole new meaning. Just saying “malt” out loud in my household is a recipe for disastrous laughter. It all traces back to that boiling summer afternoon at Shake Shack…

I remember thinking, as sweat coated me like a second skin, “Wow, I could go for a milkshake right now.” It was as if my dad had read my mind, as only 25 minutes later, my brother and I were miraculously standing outside of Shake Shack, mouths parched and stomachs growling. When my dad finally caught up to me in line after locking the car, he reached into his shirt pocket for his reading glasses. As he meticulously reviewed the milkshake flavors, he turned toward me.

“What are you getting?” he asked. All of my bubbling excitement instantly rushed out of me, allowing icy anxiety to spread underneath my skin. What flavor should I order? Back then, not knowing what milkshake flavor to order was like not remembering if you’d turned in a paper on time. I looked up at my dad and asked him what he was getting, determined to order the same flavor.

“The chocolate malted shake,” he replied. “Never mind,” I thought. “I am definitely not getting whatever that is.” I was a little stubborn about food back then, especially when I didn’t know what it was — I still am, I suppose. Just ask my suitemates.

“I think I’ll just get the plain chocolate shake,” I told my dad, still suspicious of the unknown suspect: malt.

Now, I don’t know how your family operates at restaurants, but mine operates like a private buffet. If someone orders a perfectly cooked medium-rare steak or a warm and velvety chocolate lava cake, it’s conventional to offer everybody at the table a bite. I’ve grown to dislike steak over the past few years, but without fail, my dad will always offer me a bite of his New York strip. And this convention even continues at fast-food restaurants like Shake Shack. When my dad offered my brother and me a sip of his chocolate malted shake, I steadfastly refused. But he was persistent, more so than I was obstinate, so I finally agreed to a small sip.

As I sat there waiting, my dad appeared to be having trouble taking the lid off of the shake. I leaned forward to offer my help, but soon froze, jaw dropped and eyes wide. My dad had gotten the lid off of the shake alright. The malted milkshake had exploded and spilled all over the table, and all my dad could do, with milkshake all over his hands, was laugh. And all I could do was laugh with him. I don’t particularly know what was so funny about the situation, but regardless, my dad and I laughed until we were red in the face and crying. We were absolutely hysterical, and the worst part: We were in a public restaurant. The people around us — my brother included — just glared at us with a mixture of concern and confusion, but we didn’t care. I don’t think I had ever seen my dad laugh that hard in my entire life, and that only made it that much funnier.

And so, to this day, every time I walk into the Shake Shack on Glades Road, or even the one right here in New Haven, laughter threatens to take me over. I could be eating Shake Shack’s crinkle-cut fries or a Chick’n Shack, and I will still snicker at the thought — not at the thought of the shake spilling everywhere, but at the unburdened joy on my dad’s face and the indescribable combination of annoyance and love on my brother’s face. When I’m feeling weighed down by the world, I frequently return to this moment, when my only worries were deciding on a milkshake flavor and cleaning up that milkshake with too few napkins.

And then there was Zinburger, the closest I’ve ever come to finding the “best burger,” but unfortunately, this burger joint permanently shut down its Boca Raton location due to the pandemic’s ramifications. I’ve been in a state of devastation for months, but I’ll always have the memories of the Double Chocolate Shake, made with Ghirardelli chocolate, and the Samburger, smothered in Thousand Island and bacon, to cherish in my heart. I can’t count the number of times my dad has tried to convince me to get a burger and a shake here when we’re in the vicinity, and it broke my heart to refuse him. Trust me, if I could live off of burgers and shakes, I would, but that’s not really an option… or is it?

Five Guys. Hmmm… if I’m being completely honest, I can’t remember anything interesting ever happening at Five Guys. All I can remember are the innumerable peanut shells all over the floor — it was extremely unappetizing to look at — and an excess of grease in the air.

Shula Burger, named after famed Miami Dolphins football coach Don Shula, was a killer burger joint. Note the use of the past tense, as this restaurant also closed its Boca Raton location. It seems like whenever my family found a burger restaurant that hit all of the targets (thick, yet creamy shakes, juicy and flavorful burgers, crispy and salty fries, etc.) it would suddenly close its location or shut down all together. Nevertheless, my memories at Shula Burger can never be shut down. Shula Burger was famous for its burger meat, as it was a blend of angus beef, short ribs and brisket, which, for all of you carnivores out there, yields mouthwatering deliciousness. Yet, unlike most people, my dad could not stop fawning over the colossal chocolate chip cookies that the restaurant sold at the cash register, and truthfully, they were not very good. What was good was the time that my family brought my Labrador retriever to Shula Burger for dinner one night. Whoever thought that was a good idea was sorely mistaken: My dog almost knocked the outside table over from excitement every single time a person walked by on their way to the movie theater.

Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox was just plain weird. My dad had been begging to take me there for months, dying to have me try the “Tucker Duke Burger,” a hamburger that’s so stuffed with toppings (including onion rings) that it’s taller than my own face! The weird parts, though, are that they don’t accept order modifications for their famous burger and that cell phone use is prohibited in the restaurant. I was a little put off by Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox, to say the least.

Burger Bar is another out-of-this-world burger joint that permanently closed. Does my family have bad luck in regard to burger restaurants or something? I’d only ever been to Burger Bar once with my dad after one of my performances in high school, and all I can say is that the drive there was incredibly long. My dad and I, even though years have passed, still argue about the location of Burger Bar to this day. Geographically, it is in Palm Beach Gardens, but considering it’s only a few hundred feet south of Jupiter, I consider Burger Bar too far of a drive for a hamburger. After that hourlong drive, I declared a new rule to my family: I would not drive more than 20 minutes for a hamburger ever again.

To this day, I have adhered to that rule. The only exception I have made and will ever make is for the drive to BRGR Stop. There’s just something about that place that fills me with so much joy. I remember, only a few years ago, my entire family went to BRGR Stop in January on Florida’s only cold day of the winter. We decided to embrace the freezing air — it was probably 55 degrees — and sit outside, even though we were not dressed for it. We all sat there shivering, but happy to be there and to be with each other. I can still hear my brother’s snickers after my dad ordered the “Big A$$ Pretzel,” fully enunciating each word. I can still hear my dad reading all of the craft milkshakes out loud, making our stomachs rumble as we waited for the server. I can still hear my mom ask me what I’ve decided to order as a way of checking up on me. And of course, I’ll never forget our family outing to BRGR Stop the day before I left for Yale. I skipped breakfast that day to accommodate the giant espresso chip milkshake and a “Would You Like Some Cheese with That Wine?” burger. Spending that last day with my family at BRGR Stop was deliciously melancholy, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Burgers and family go together like one, two, three.

I don’t remember the exact first time I ever ate a hamburger. Does anybody? There’s even a picture taken by my dad of me holding a burger with a thumbs up that I don’t remember taking. Was this my first hamburger? Who knows? Sometimes our memories come from our first times, but more often than not they come from small arbitrary moments in arbitrary places. For me, those small moments were sometimes in burger joints. Where were those small moments for you?

Jacqueline Kaskel | jacqueline.kaskel@yale.edu