27 October 2020
Of all the sweeping claims to make, Louis’ Lunch makes a grand one: “the birthplace of the hamburger sandwich.” I’ll admit, I was skeptical– after 18 years of being a Connecticut native, I knew New Haven had its hidden foodie gems (just a slice from the nearby Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria will tell you that), but I couldn’t quite believe that an institution of American cuisine could stem from southwestern CT. To the world, New Haven is the home to Yale University, and therefore the city must be as prestigious as the Ivy League school it houses. To Connecticut locals, New Haven is far from our favorite destination– it lacks Westport’s waterside views at Bar Taco and instead is ridden with poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. I could delve into the drawbacks of New Haven, but my skepticism is self-evident– how could New Haven claim the original hamburger?
It was my dad that finally convinced me to go. We were in the area already (on business, not a destination trip) and he was convinced that the few articles he had read and the testimonies he had heard were enough validation. I tagged along for his own benefit, but my hesitation amplified at the sight of the joint. Louis’ Lunch barely exceeded the size of my bedroom; its limited seating was composed of wood-stained nooks hollowed from the walls, all of which featured carvings from decades of satisfied diners. The customers were piled on top of each other– most of whom, I noticed, were drunken college students. By chance, we had stumbled into Louis’ Lunch on the eve of a highly-contested football match-up: Yale versus Harvard. Students from both of the Ivy League powerhouses had found their way into Louis’ that night– and somehow, my dad and I had become a part of the crazed, hungry college scene.
After seeing the scarcity of the menu, I followed my dad’s lead– only cheeseburgers and hamburgers were served, no condiments. Onions and tomatoes could be added, but all burgers– all– were served on classic, toasted white bread. No fancy brioche rolls or seeded buns, only white bread.
I remained skeptical until the first bite. The college drunkards stumbled over each other and would yell obnoxiously across the restaurant, but the 4th generation owners hardly batted an eye. That was part of the ambiance of Louis’ Lunch– a rough, authentic joint to compliment the simple, authetic hamburger.
But that first bite– the hype from The Travel Channel, The Food Network, and more made sense. Something was different– the five cuts of meat, the white bread, and the simplicity of the sandwich all added to an authenticity that made Louis’ Lunch about more than just a burger. It was the setting, the dim lighting, the paper plates upon which our meal was served; Louis’ Lunch was proud of its originality, and their efforts to retain this old-fashioned identity had coined a unique dining experience in the modern day. The hamburger looked far from the sandwich that America reveres today, but its taste embodied the institution; I was struck by how such a simple meal could create such a fulfilling dining experience.
They’ll tell you that they want you to experience the meat’s “true flavor,” hence the burger’s simplicity. But much of this flavor comes from the experience, and not just the cast-iron grills from 1898. In any other institution, one might be offended by brazen college drunks— in Louis’ Lunch, it simply shows the restaurant’s ties to the school and the city. The pride, the authenticity, the deliciousness that exudes from Louis’ Lunch is what gives it its renowned name– whether they can claim the “original hamburger” or not, they can claim a sandwich and an experience that stand alone.
Dr. Vince Benigni has been a well-renowned professor in the College of Charleston Communications Department for the past 22 years, but his experience in public relations and sports communication extends far beyond. At the College, he has found a niche in sports journalism, and teaches Intro to Strategic Communication, Sport and Society, and Media in the Digital Age. In 1983, Dr. Benigni received a journalism degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a subsequent English degree from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Georgia in 1999, where he began developing a presence in southern identity.
Dr. Benigni is originally from Western Pennsylvania, but has spent the last 30 years in the South studying southern college football, the role of social media in southern sports, and the SEC fandom. His work in southern studies concerns the culture and the influence that has come from southern sports, particularly football: “That SEC slogan ‘It means more’ rings true,” he says. “I think there’s some truth to that, that people in the South go a little crazy and have made the fandom as big as the sports.” He describes the football tailgating rituals to be almost a religious aspect– “You hear stories that people never get married on a college football Saturday.” Dr. Benigni is currently examining what he called the “trifecta of crises” in 2020 and their impact on southern sports– the impacts of the coronavirus and racial movements from a financial standpoint have had staggering impacts on 2020 collegiate sports. Many universities, particularly southern ones, have taken huge pocketbook hits from the lack of a fan base in the stands. Television revenues, merchandising, and tailgating spots have declined, all of which help to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into schools like Clemson and Alabama.
Dr. Benigni’s professional connection to Southern Studies has also fueled his personal one; immersing himself in the SEC fandom has only increased his stance as a huge sports fanatic, and he’s taken a greater liking to college football since moving to the South. He’s become fascinated with how at many of these southern schools, identity is based on football– the fan base and culture has shaped southern football programs to be more than the sport itself.
In addition to the impact of the coronavirus on college sports, Dr. Benigni is studying the racial imbalances in certain sports: “We haven’t seen a big explosion of black athletes in Southern country club sports like golf, or even baseball– you would think a lot might be inclined to pursue these, but there’s a real access problem for some in the South,” Dr. Benigni said. Educational and monetary gaps have prevented many struggling southern areas from promoting “country club sports.” These collegiate programs have never been as aggressive in recruiting black athletes, leaving them to reevaluate how they handle their admissions processes in today’s political climate. Lately, he’s been analyzing how many smaller southern schools– Davidson, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina– have been directing funds towards their athletic programs to then bolster their national profile, and in turn, the admissions process. Winning sports programs, Benigni says, have been instrumental in improving universities’ academic profiles as well.