100 years of hamburgers

Hudsons Hamburgers celebrates a century of Huddyburgers in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Find more of Peter Fish's Postcard and Western Wanderings essaysTodd Hudson has a century's worth of stories about the family hamburger joint in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. But the best dates back to his grandfather Howard Hudson. "A guy sat down and ate eight hamburgers in a row," Todd says. "Then he wanted to linger over his coffee. Howard told him, 'Hell, no - I need that stool.' Howard made him finish his coffee standing up."

This story reveals a number of things. First, that Hudson's is small - specifically, 17 chrome stools at a brown Formica counter. Second, that Hudson's is popular. And that Howard Hudson was a demanding host. Most important, it tells you that Hudson's hamburgers are so good, somebody can eat eight of them at a single sitting.

This year marks Hudson's Hamburgers' 100th birthday. The event has been celebrated with official proclamations and with tributes from America's most demanding palates, among them the Wall Street Journal's Raymond Sokolov, who said, "The Huddyburger is the best $2 burger in creation."

The Missouri Lunch was what Harley Hudson called the place when he opened in 1907. "Not because he was from Missouri," Todd explains, "but because he had a brother nicknamed Missouri." Harley had an inkling that Coeur d'Alene, then a booming timber town, would have an appetite for burgers. A century later, multimillion-dollar lakeside homes have mostly replaced the lumber mills. But millions of Huddyburgers (and five generations of Hudsons grilling them) have proved Harley right.

Part of the Hudson's legend is that it starts serving early.

So I show up at 9 a.m. to watch Todd prep for the day. This is a simpler task than at many restaurants, and a glance at the menu posted behind the counter tells you why. Here's what you can order: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, double hamburgers, double cheeseburgers. Pickle and onion if you want. Here's what you can't order: gourmet burger additions, milkshakes, and - steady yourself - the burger's seemingly essential partner in crime, the french fry.

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Todd and his brother, Steve, have been running Hudson's since about 1990, when their father, Roger (Howard's son) retired. Sometimes, Todd admits, they feel the burden of the family burger tradition. "I always say, our great-grandfather started it, our grandfather improved it, our father improved it more. Steve's and my job is not to screw it up."

By 11 the place is packed, and Todd's hands are moving like a Vegas blackjack dealer's, slicing onions and shaping patties and slapping them down on the Depression-era grill. It is time for me to try my double cheeseburger. And it is ... superb. In terms of food expertise, I'm no Raymond Sokolov, but the entire bun-cheese-burger package seems perfect in its simplicity, like a Shaker chair. When I ask Todd Hudson the secret of the Huddyburger, he modestly credits his beef supplier. But surely his dexterity at the grill counts for something, not to mention the spirits of past Hudsons looking over his shoulder.

By now it's noon. People line up to grab seats at the counter, they line up for take-out burgers, they line up on the sidewalk trying to get in the front door. Todd Hudson looks beleaguered, but happily so. He admits that he reads Chowhound and other food websites regularly, and recently had his feelings hurt when a diner criticized Hudson's for making customers eat their burgers in such close proximity to other customers.

"But that's the whole point," Todd says. "At Hudson's, you never know who you're going to be next to. A millionaire, some guy who works in a mill." The smell of grilled beef rises in the air, and right then, Todd Hudson's seems as good a vision of American democracy as you can think of: one nation, double cheeseburger, pickles and onions for all.

INFO: Hudson's Hamburgers ( $; closed Sun; 207 E. Sherman Ave., Coeur d'Alene, ID; 208/664-5444)

Read more about Peter Fish's travels at the Sunset Traveler blog »

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