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March 28, 2012

The Taste Bud: Evolution of a bowling alley burger

At my high school, we enjoyed open-campus lunch periods — which means that in four years, I never ate at the school cafeteria. Not even once.

Instead, I usually went to local convenience stores, where we would feast upon Cokes, chips and candy — the kind of nutrition perfectly suited to post-pubescent boys dealing with acne, wild growth spurts and self-esteem issues.

However, about once a week, we would treat ourselves to select fare at the local bowling alley, just a couple of blocks from our school in Clarksville. There, for around $3, we could dine upon the ubiquitous “Student Special.” This ready-made meal consisted of a giant basket of the establishment’s signature crinkle cut fries, topped with seasoning salt (sooo delicious) … and a flat, tasteless hamburger about the size of your thumbnail.

It was an odd pairing, because sometimes the fries would actually bury the burger, and you would have to check to make sure it was even there. I never quite understood how the folks serving this food could not see the imbalance.

That bowling alley is now closed, sadly, the Student Special gone with it. But a few years ago, I ended up enjoying a Sunday afternoon with friends at another bowling alley in the same small town — an out-of-the-way place called Blackiston Bowl. Between games (and beers), my friend Rob urged me to try the cheeseburger, and immediately my mind traveled back to the Student Special. Bleah. If that’s what a bowling alley burger is, I’ll pass.

And then I saw his burger, dripping with melted cheese and overloaded with juicy ground beef. And at that moment, I realized I had been wrong all those years — not all bowling alley burgers are created equal. Or equally. Or whatever. Regardless, I was soon addicted, and we frequented the place for quite some time, as much for the burger (and beer) as for the bowling.

But I hadn’t been in a while until another recent Sunday when I went bowling with my girlfriend Cynthia and her 6-year-old son. I had been raving about the burger to her for some time, and I was actually a bit anxious as we bowled two games before having a late lunch. I was not only hungry, but worried the burger had changed, and that my anticipation would be met by disappointment. (By the way, never bowl two games with a 6-year-old before lunch if you are hungry. My girlfriend and I spent most of that afternoon staring blankly as his ball crept, weaving down the lane like an intoxicated turtle.)

But I was happy to find out that the burger hasn’t changed. In fact, I was so excited and peckish that I got the double cheeseburger — it was a mere $4 (add $1.50 for a side of fries) for what, to me, looked like about 25 percent of a cow on a bun. As I stared at it, I almost felt a tear form. Ah, man-food. (For comparison’s sake, my girlfriend had a pretzel for lunch. A pretzel.)

The burger wasn’t quite as juicy as burgers I’d had there previously, but in all other ways, it was spot on. I mean, what could be better than a pile of meat — with melted cheese — on bread? And when I say “pile,” I mean it. This thing looked an inch thick or better. And it tasted like, well, unadulterated ground beef. What can I say? When you bowl a robust 127, you need to reward yourself with ground animal flesh.

Normally, I get pickles and onions on my burger, and lettuce if it’s not iceberg, but on this day, it was just meat and cheese, with a little bit of spicy mustard. My belief is that any burger that can stand alone, sans garnish, is a burger truly worth eating. The final verdict: The Blackiston Bowl double cheeseburger is indeed that burger.

And as I finished off the final bite, feeling simultaneously stuffed and satisfied, it dawned on me that if the Student Special burger had been like this, we’d all have weighed 357 pounds and probably died of coronary failure at age 19. Instead, I live on to enjoy my occasional pile-of-meat sandwich in good health.

I love a happy ending.