I will forever be indebted to Raleigh couple Tom Mekus and Shonna Greenwell for doing something for me when I was at a low-point in my life — my most desperate, my most despondent, my most utterly hopeless: They made me those “houseburgers” Eddie Murphy talked about in his 1987 stand-up concert movie Eddie Murphy Raw.
Wait a minute – you’ve never seen that movie, and you don’t know what “houseburgers” are? Well, here’s a clip to get you better acquainted with this wonderful, low-rent delicacy:
Now, back to how this wonderful experience came to be.
It was last summer — three days before my 37th birthday, to be exact. And I was broke as shit. I didn’t have a job. Freelance gigs were getting scarce. I was behind on my bills. Basically, I didn’t have a pot to piss in or the Tupperware party to throw it for.
I walked around my historic Oakwood neighborhood in Raleigh looking to clear my head, get some exercise and hope one of my neighbor friends take pity on me and hand me a beer. I stopped at the home of my buddy Tom (who also refers to himself as “Art Deco,” mainly because he’s a landscaper and has a good eye for architecture and interior design), who I remember made me a nice cocktail to soothe my troubled soul.
As he was making me a drink in the kitchen, I noticed some finely-wrapped ground beef defrosting on the counter. Since I didn’t have much food in me that day, I curiously asked him what he was cooking for dinner that night. “I’m grilling burgers,” he said.
I still I don’t know how I did it, but I convinced him wouldn’t it be funny if he made those homemade burgers Eddie Murphy talked about his mother making for him in Eddie Murphy Raw. I never had homemade burgers made in that fashion before, and I’ve always wanted to try them that way. He said he didn’t remember the movie or the chunk where he talked about that. But he was down for it nonetheless – he just had to make sure Shonna was down for it too.
I asked him if he had a green pepper and an onion that were definitely needed for the patties. He said he had an onion, but he didn’t have a green pepper. Shonna eventually came home and I was chomping at the bit to ask her if this could happen. She said sure, even though I believe she said she never saw the movie and didn’t know what the hell we were talking about. After her OK, I ran out the house to see if anybody else I knew in the neighborhood had a green pepper. (I couldn’t call anybody in advance because I hadn’t paid my iPhone bill around that time, and my phone got cut off AT TOM’S HOUSE!!!)
I ran over to my friend and former workmate Josh Shaffer, who not only had a green pepper, but had it growing OUTSIDE HIS GOTDAMN LAWN! I tell you, if there is one great plus about living near white people (apart from the free booze), it’s that they actually grow their own food. I mean, Tom has a yards-long garden and a chicken coop! Hell, my next-door neighbor even has a garden full of veggies in our backyard! I don’t have to go to farmer’s markets or nothing!
But back to the story.
I ran back to Tom’s house, the recently-picked green pepper in my hand. He already had the beef in a bowl, ready to be kneaded and balled up. But we didn’t have bread OR ketchup! We had to make a run.
We hopped in this truck and went to this nearby bodega, where Tom bought a loaf of Sunbeam bread, a bottle of no-brand-name ketchup and a couple of forties. (Yes, it was going to be one of those nights!) After that, we immediately went back to the house, where Tom completed the balling of the patties.
Each one of those baseball-sized nuggets contained meat, green pepper and onion pieces, egg and a bit of salt and pepper for seasoning – just like Eddie’s momma made them.
Tom, Shonna and I were all around the round, black grill outside as these babies sizzled up, the sun beginning to set on the evening. I tried to be as subtle as I could by reading a book I bought, not giving away that I was psyched to be eating the “welfare, green-pepper burger” that Eddie talked about in his standup. Also, I was well-aware I was imposing myself on these people; there they were all ready to have a quiet, grilled dinner and here is my broke ass, ratcheting the whole thing up!
I should mention how Shonna was baffled by why this burger was perceived as such a lower-class thing by Mr. Murphy. When she was growing up, burgers filled with vegetables and eggs between Wonder bread was not a big deal. It definitely wasn’t a black thing for her. I must say that was quite revelatory.
Anyway, Tom also put some ears of corn on the grill, along with cooking up some buttered lima beans and rice to go with the burgers. So, basically, DUDE MADE A GOTDAMN FEAST! (Tom is actually quite the working-class cook. The man can work a Crock-Pot like it’s nobody’s business.)
So, we’re all around the dining-room table, finally consuming these burgers, pouring forties of beer like fine wine, regaling each other with hard-luck stories. The burgers were quite delicious – those bountiful boulders of meat doused in ketchup and sealed between two pieces of untoasted, white bread. Since it was grilled, there was no greasiness to gel with the ketchup or have it stick to the plate. But, still, I can’t think of a better meal to have while discussing the most financially shitty times in our lives.
I remember leaving that place full and positive. Whether Tom and Shonna knew it or not, they fed a hungry, desperate soul that evening, and I’ll be forever grateful for the early birthday present they gave me. Hey, my 38th birthday is coming up soon – maybe I can get them to do it again!