Thursday, July 15, 2010

Slip-Sliding Away

One of the customers, who usually devotes himself to more cosmic ideas, asks where the term “slider” came from.  Sliders—those little three-bite mini-hamburgers—are ubiquitous these days, everywhere from greasy spoons to classier joints with white tablecloths and sommeliers.  Their price ranges from 50 cents to as much as ten bucks each—depending on where you wish to consume them and whether you want them plain or decked out with trimmings like paté de foie gras and truffles.

As with most etymologies, there’s a little indecision in pinning down the precise origin of the word.  Most people agree that the White Castle hamburger chain, which flourishes in the Midwest and has served mini-burgers since the early 1920s, provided the inspiration for the name.  As food writer Florence Fabricant tells the tale in a New York Times dissertation:

“Originally, the term ‘slider’ for the White Castle burger was derogatory, having to do with the ease with which the greasy sandwiches went down….White Castle did their best to ignore the term. That was, until 1993, when it trademarked its sandwiches as ‘slyders.’

“’The spelling had to do with our legal history, a decision made on the corporate side to claim it was a distinctive name,’ said Jamie Richardson, the vice president for corporate affairs at the company’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. ‘In our cultural history there were folks in the company who weren’t fond of it, but it’s now a term of affection.’ Printed fliers in the White Castle stores call the burger ‘the classic slider.’”

There’s a large body of evidence that suggests the term “slider” originated in U. S. Navy slang.  Wednesday, it is said, was called “slider day,” because the menu rotation called for grilled hamburgers, which were notoriously greasy, to be served throughout the fleet on that day.  The greasiness would suggest and the sailors maintained that the burgers not only slid down easily, but also slid all the way through you with the same ease. 

There are other etymological theories including the burgers’ supposed resemblance to the red-bellied terrapin known as a slider, or the fact that burgers slide onto the grill and then onto the bun, as opposed to hot dogs, which roll.  Another pundit says the term referred to an ice cream sandwich in 1915 and then was applied to the burger that resembled it.  Yet another scribe quotes the Oxford English Dictionary’s listing of “slider” meaning a coaster holding a decanter, which was slid along the table, and suggests the mini-burger resembled this object.  You pays your money and you takes your (greasy) choice.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been sliding for years, with no end in sight.  He bestirred himself from his customary torpor to spin this gossamer web of gustatory rhyme:

            Take back your fine filet mignon,
            Dom Perignon in crystal flutes,
            The choicest chef’s Chateubriand—
            For these I wouldn’t give two hoots.

            I’ll have a burger, if you please,
            Grilled on a grimy, greasy griddle,
            With mustard, onions, cheddar cheese,
            And kosher pickles in the middle.

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