Despite the varying degrees of inferno that envelop the summertime South, the season is prime time for food festivals. I was reminded that not all 90-degree heat is created equal on a July morning, when I headed north from New Orleans to take part in Corinth, Mississippi’s Slugburger Festival. The Delta’s heat is less like inhaling seawater (à la southern Louisiana) and more like you’ve been wrapped in a thin gloss of cellophane—the least ideal condition in which to stuff your gullet with hot meat. Nothing, though, would stop townsfolk in this small northern Mississippi town from placing their favorite quasi-hamburger on a smoldering pedestal.
The slugburger is one of the last Southern treats not (yet) swept up in the wave of national pimento cheese-covered food fetishism. It is a hyper-local delicacy that has only managed to ripple about a hundred miles outside the Cornith’s borders despite an almost hundred-year history.
Named, ostensibly, for a time when the burger variation cost only a nickel (aka a “slug”), a slugburger is a combination of pebble-sized ground beef and a thick starch—usually soybean flour or cornmeal—that is formed into a patty and deep-fried until golden brown.
“The burgers started out in the Depression, when meat was really scarce,” said Ken Hastings, a Corinth native and barbecue champion who was tossing slugburgers for $2 a piece at the festival. “They’d grind the meat fat about as small as they could get it, and then they’d mix in cornmeal, salt, pepper, and water to make it almost like a cake batter. Then they’d deep-fry them.”
Slugburgers are unfailingly dressed with a triumvirate of condiments: a paintbrush stroke of mustard, a scatter of thickly diced onions, and a few sliced pickle rounds.
“If you do something different, folks don’t like it.” said Hastings. “We’ve tried to put a little bit extra garlic powder or stuff like that, and people are like, ‘This don’t taste like a slugburger!’ People know what they’re tasting, and that’s what we try to cater to.”
In order to have a jumping-off point for conversation with the slug slingers, I brought my dog along—a slightly pudgy, wild-eyed cocker spaniel named Faye. A furry critter with a healthy appetite is never a bad way to quickly win friends.
After walking into the festival to the amped up guitar sounds of (the unfortunately named) local band the Spunk Monkees, I found myself sitting in the buggy summer grass, pup in tow, and sliding easily into Corinth life. The city’s toddlers—many of whom were already pushing their way past cherubic into mini-Marshmallow Man territory—made for a fine welcoming committee, spreading mustardy fingerprints on Faye’s floppy ears while gumming the pickles lifted from their parents’ slugburgers. Full-sized humans soon followed suit, and restaurant loyalty began poking out.
There are those who swear by the crunchy slugburger from White Trolley Cafe, a trailer-sized diner decorated with He-Man toys and slugs that go for ninety-five cents a pop. During my White Trolley visit, slugburgers were already the dish of choice as we pushed into mid-morning, the Lucite counter worn down and faded from years of elbows anchoring into its surface. I chased my White Trolley slug with a fried bologna sandwich, grease-sopped white bread caking to the roof of my mouth as I scampered to the next stop.
While White Trolley has its charms, most folks are devotees to the slugburger at Borroum’s, the oldest continually operating pharmacy in the state of Mississippi and a knick-knack-filled time warp. Its walls are tacked with mounted arrowheads and framed oil paintings, and families glide in and out over its checkered floors to get their slugburger fix, paired with a milkshake or (if you’re like me) a hulking banana split. The slug at Borroum’s is pan-fried and has a slightly tenderer crumb, ripe for absorbing the zip of the mustard and pickled tang. It’s easy to see how a person could wolf down two or three in a single sitting.
After eating four and a half slugs in one afternoon (with Faye nabbing half of a particularly crackly one), I was feeling greedy. I wanted to be able to recreate the slug experience at home, smuggling it away back to New Orleans to batch up whenever I wanted.
Fortunately, I was told about two local grocery stores that carry slugburger meat packaged specifically for the home enthusiast. Tucked away between freshly made hoop cheese and boxes of George Jones-brand sausage biscuits, it was easy to see, in its raw form, just how little beef had managed to make its way into the pale, doughy patty. No matter. I grabbed a pack and a cooler, ready to ice it down for the long haul back to the bayou.
When I made it back to my motel with the booty, regret set in. Like Tintin’s famously wizened sidekick, Snowy, Faye looked up at me with serious doggy side-eye. I began to sense the ripple effect of moving the slugburger so boldly across state lines. It was an invasive species hitching a ride into a new habitat; there was no telling what the outcome might be.
Sometimes, the right thing is the hardest thing. With sadness, I returned my provisions. For now, and for me, the slugburger must stay where it belongs: inside Mississippi’s state lines.