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November 5, 2019
Sliders Slide Back In

Less than 10 years after slider burnout, tiny burgers are back with a vengeance.

For those of us who thought the days of popping trios of Post-it-sized burgers into our mouths died out ten years ago, along with classified ads and the T-Mobile Sidekick, well, time’s a circle, the past comes back, and sliders do too. We are, yet again, in a moment of slider ascendancy as David Chang has tapped the slider as the next in line for fast casualization when he opens Majordomo Meat & Fish at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

Chef Gabriel Rucker of Portland, Oregon, made them a menu mainstay at his restaurant, Canard, when it opened in 2018. Chicago and Detroit are littered with sliders, if you know where to look, and so is the Bay Area, where chef Justin Perez is serving buffalo chicken sliders on biscuits, three for $12, at his new Santa Clara restaurant Homestead. Hell, former Saints QB Drew Brees is even selling sliders in Baton Rouge. Wherefore the return?

According to Rucker, the answer is simple: “People love the highbrow-lowbrow thing. You can eat a board of six sliders, have an order of foie gras dumplings, a dozen oysters, and a $300 bottle of champagne.” In Rucker’s case, he says, the inspiration came from wanting to furnish his staff at Le Pigeon with White Castle–style steam burgers for their family meal. “I thought, If we can serve these, I’ll open up a new restaurant.” As in the White Castle original, Rucker steams his thin patties over a bed of onions, suffusing them with meatloafian succulence and onion essence, and serves them with pickles and American cheese. They cost $6 and have set Portland’s foodie fifth column into rapture.

This is, of course, not the first time sliders—defined here as smaller-than-usual hamburgers that, like background singers, often come in threes—came back. But before we get to what the reincarnation was, let’s savor the first time around. The slider was born in Wichita, Kansas, at the nation’s first fast food restaurant, White Castle. The hamburger was the brilliant idea of E.W. “Billy” Ingram, who, in 1921, reading the times, thought there’d be a market for five-cent onion-tinged hamburgers. He was correct. The burgers sold at such a clip that by 1924 he had opened two more locations in nearby Ohio. Nearly a century later, there are over 400 White Castles around the world, though most are concentrated in the Midwest.

This is, of course, not the first time sliders—defined here as smaller-than-usual hamburgers that, like background singers, often come in threes—came back.

The allure of the White Castle slider is at least threefold: First of all, the burgers themselves are astonishingly affordable—a nickel until 1940, then ten cents for a good number of years afterwards. (Today they’re 72 cents, which is in exact keeping with inflation.) Secondly, small and square, eatable in two bites max, the sliders embodied what modern food scientists call “vanishing caloric density”—that is, you eat it and it’s gone and you want more of it. Laypeople generally call this “craving,” and White Castle leaned into this with their slogan “What You Crave.” Thirdly, and this should not be understated or overlooked, a White Castle slider is a very delicious thing to eat.

There’s something dopey and lovable about the square patty (originally engineered so more could fit on the griddle at a time) hanging out from an inappropriately pillowy bun. Taste- and texture-wise, the greasy little patty inside the soft bun yields no resistance. Char, and with it the complexity of the Maillard reaction, are absent.

For the next hundred years or so, the dominion of White Castle grew as did epigones and copycats. The chain was the first to sell a million sliders, and then the first to sell a billion of ’em by the year 1961. Meanwhile, the world changed. America pivoted from depression to war to boom to peace and love to greed, from Gordon Gekko to Amazon Echo. The whole time Americans held the slider above water like a swimming dog carries a tennis ball.

The slider came into being almost exactly 100 years ago. Since their birth, sliders have been like high-waisted jeans: always there but only occasionally fashionable. The last time the slider was a thing, at least in my recollection, spanned from approximately 2007 to 2010, three dramatic years in the ferment of American history in which we approached an economic cliff, peered cautiously over it, and then thought, Fuck it, let’s jump! As a beat reporter in the trenches of New York’s food-world demimonde, I found myself ingesting piles of sliders, boatloads of sliders, pantloads of sliders.

These were Pimp My Ride sliders, in which every crevasse was mined for ostentation, every variable turned to 11.

This Second Coming of Sliders lifted from its ancestors’ size (small), quantity (many), and affect (craving) while jettisoning the original incarnation’s modesty. These were no five-cent White Castle sliders meant for the working class. No, these were small buns full of lobster and Kobe beef, wild boar, foie gras, and all other manner of Veblenian protein. These were Pimp My Ride sliders, in which every crevasse was mined for ostentation, every variable turned to 11. For $36, Joel Robuchon hawked pairs of sliders at his Manhattan Atelier. For that you got two tiny Wagyu patties with a layer of foie gras, baby watercress, and ginger ketchup. At another schmancy New York restaurant, Porter House, three miniaturized Hereford beef sliders went for $15, and downtown at the Stanton Social, a single “Philly Cheesesteak” slider included truffle and goat cheese fondue for $9.

I have a distinct and unpleasant memory of stuffing myself silly with Wagyu beef sliders at a midtown restaurant called Kobe Club whose main feature was thousands of Japanese swords hanging in Damoclean menace. But as Florence Fabricant of the New York Times noted in 2008, it wasn’t just Chodorow who slung haute sliders. “Some chefs lavish almost unbelievable intricacies on their tiny sandwiches,” she wrote in a trend piece about the phenomenon.

Then, of course, in 2008, the end came—or at least a semicolon arrived. There was a financial and cultural reckoning, and the slider slid into dormancy. When the trend did eventually peter out in the 2010s, was that because it was simply too hard to stomach titans gorging on gold-leafed lobster sliders as the bottom fell out of the American economy, or was it just that sliders had ridden the bell curve of cool to its temporary terminus? Or were they replaced by another high-low trend: fried chicken?

Nearly a decade later, we are marking the sliders’ re-return just as, I might add, the world whirls ever more wobbly on its axis, like a gyroscope running out of steam. Is it any surprise that the slider have slid into our DMs just as economists are howling into the void that the selfsame conditions that led to the recession—and worse, the Great Depression—are once again present? Or that in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans thought the country would be worse off in 2050? Or that the GINI Index, which measures income inequality, is at a 50-year high?

According to professor and food scholar Darra Goldstein, no. “In uncertain times we definitely turn to comfort foods—witness the revival of mac and cheese after 9/11. There’s both a need to ground ourselves but also to make whatever we ground ourselves with feel special.” For Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, the slider’s return might be more a matter of economic necessity than existential comfort, if only because that comfort is, as he notes, false. “Sliders show chefs adapting to a challenging business environment by embracing a high-margin item, thus staving off a restaurant apocalypse, at least for the time being.”

Are the same conditions that gave rise to 2007’s slider craze present, or is it the more remote and less extravagant original slider of a century ago to which we slouch?

The most pressing question as the slider reenters our orbit for the third time around is about what well we are drawing from: Is it the excess of the aughts or the wholesomeness of the ’20s? Certainly Rucker, for his part, fingers the way-back White Castle slider. “It’s my reinterpretation,” he says of the burgers, whose meat is combined with French onion soup mix and then steamed with onions in a nod to the White Castle way. They cost but $6 a piece.

Chang, who goes as deep for allusion as a pearl diver or vinyl collector, instead gleans inspiration from White Manna, an obscure New Jersey diner which claims to be the birthplace of the slider. Chang has decided to rebrand the sliders as “Tastys” and serve them on King’s Hawaiian bread.

So where does that leave us on the slope of sliders, and what does it presage for the future? Certainly these are uncertain times, and for comfort we cling to the sheer rock face of an unknown future. Are the same conditions that gave rise to 2007’s slider craze present, or is it the more remote and less extravagant original slider of a century ago to which we slouch? Peering through the steam of a hot griddle, full of sliders on a bed of onions, I advise you to enjoy the sliders now, while you still can. Because remember: No one slides upward.

Joshua David Stein

Joshua David Stein is a cookbook author and editor who lives in Brooklyn. He is the co-author of Notes from a Young Black Chef with Kwame Onwuachi; the author of the children’s books Can I Eat That?; What’s Cooking?; Brick: Who Found Herself in Architecture; Can You Eat and the forthcoming Book of Balls. He is the editor-at-large at Fatherly and host of the Fatherly podcast.