Today’s sandwich is the “Seven Napkin Burger” from the Owls Head General Store. It combines a beef burger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup on a bun.
Location: 2 South Shore Drive, Owls Head
Notes: At the center of nearly every small village in Midcoast Maine, an independently-run general store has historically been the hub of activity for that community. They offer not just the grocery store staples and sundries you’d expect, but also provide a central meeting place for fishermen, tourists, old, and young to rub elbows and chat about the latest town gossip. Some, like the Hope General Store, are also a post office, making it the central spot for town business. Growing up, I had “Hall’s Market” in Tenants Harbor (it’s called the “Tenants Harbor General Store” now, thanks to the ongoing Linda Beanification of the entire St. George peninsula). In the early 1980s, it was the kind of place your mom would send you on foot to pick up a last-minute styrofoam container of coleslaw, where the clerks would let you pay just by signing your name on the store’s handwritten credit slip, and then would call your mom a few minutes after you left, to make sure you got home safely. Port Clyde has the “Port Clyde General.” South Thomaston has the “‘Keag Store.” And Owls Head? Owls Head has the “Owls Head General Store.”
Like many general stores in modern-day coastal Maine, the Owls Head General Store is capitalizing on its cuteness. It’s still a warm, cozy, inviting place, where you can have a cup of coffee, pick up a newspaper, and sit at one of the tables inside while you wait for your lunch. There’s still the handpainted “General Store” sign hanging high above the grocery shelves, stocked with homemade whoopie pies and glass cookie jars filled with old-fashioned penny candy. Now, though, there’s just as much space dedicated to souvenir tee shirts, post cards, and bumper stickers, the stock in trade of visitors from away who are drawn in by Summer day trips to area lighthouses.
Recently, however, there’s been other big news in Owls Head: Food Network Magazine crowned the store’s “Seven Napkin Burger” the very best in Maine, as part of their “50 Burgers, 50 States” feature in the June/July 2009 issue. I’m not spilling a local secret, here; the store is proud of the national recognition their burger has received, and has several signs around the store touting the designation.
It’s a well-deserved title. The burger starts with a loosely-packed hamburger patty that must weigh at least 6-8 ounces, loosely packed and cooked to the temperature you request (an increasingly rare feature in a cheeseburger these days), with a thick, seasoned crust. The beef is set upon a huge white hamburger bun that’s soft, but sturdy enough to stand up to the toppings that follow. Even after a 10 minute car ride home, I was delighted to find that the bun had survived, when I was expecting it to be reduced to a bready soup by the juice from the burger and the tomatoes. What pushes the burger into “Seven Napkin” territory, however, is what comes next: a liberal application of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, onions, pickles, lettuce, and tomato. It’s a gloriously messy burger that never gets out of your control, the bun diverting the river of juices from the burger away from your chin and arms and down onto your plate.
Served with a bag of potato chips and a dill pickle spear, it’s a heavy, hearty meal. But it’s so much more that that. Wrapped up in one cheeseburger is an opportunity to catch a glimpse of what daily life in Maine’s coastal communities is like, where the already-seated customers greet the new arrivals by name, where the coffee may be a little weak, but it’s always fresh and hot, where the kitchen staff good-naturedly teases the kid that’s been working there every Summer since he was fifteen. It’s a great way to spend your lunch hour, and a brilliant place to be a part of.