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Cheeseburgers and North Carolina politics -- A mouthful

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 23, 2009

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Siler City, NC - “Just tell Claxton that I got his message.”

It was the last thing North Carolina House Speaker of Representatives Joe Hackney told me after he learned that my friend Jamie May and I were going to eat cheeseburgers at Johnson’s in Siler City.

The cheeseburgers really are fantastic, well worth a trip from anywhere in North Carolina

For years people have been telling me, “You mean you live so close, and you’ve never been to Johnson’s. Their cheeseburger is the best in the world,”

Then there were other legends about Johnson’s that I wanted to check out. “Get there early. When he runs out, he closes. And it can be well before 2 p.m.”

People explained that Johnson’s owner estimates the amount of ground beef he needs for each day, grinds it fresh each morning, and when he runs out, that is it. There are no more cheeseburgers that day. Other people told me that it was not the ground beef. He would shut down each day when he ran out of buns.

Speaker Hackney backed up all everybody else said about Johnson’s. Then he added, “You know, the owner, Claxton Johnson, is my cousin. And another cousin, Wade Hackney, eats there every day, same time each day, like clockwork. Get there early because Claxton really does run out—every now and then. Even if he doesn’t run out, it gets mighty crowded at lunchtime, and you might not be able to find a seat. ”

“So, I asked, what is the secret of this special cheeseburger?”

“Well one of these secrets is the big thick block of ‘cheese’ Claxton pushes down on top of the burger. And you know what it really is? It’s Velveeta.”

Sure enough, when Jamie and I arrived at Johnson’s about 11:30, it was already crowded. But we found seats at the counter. From there we watched Claxton presiding over the grill, making each burger individually on order.

“They taste different, you know, depending on what you put on the bun. A lettuce and tomato cheeseburger is an entirely different thing from one with chilli and onions,” Claxton told us. But the quick hint of a smile told me he thought his burgers were the best, whatever else he put on them.

“So what is the real secret to your cheeseburgers?” I asked.

“Mainly, it’s the beef--Midwestern, grain fed—ground fresh every day and put on the grill only when I get the order. And, everything that’s not used on one day, meat, slaw, chilli, or anything else, gets tossed out. I am not going to ruin that good beef with day-old slaw.”

I almost forgot to tell Claxton that Joe Hackney “had gotten his message.”

I thought it was probably something about family matters.

But Claxton’s response reminded me about the connection between homecooking restaurants and political life in North Carolina. “I am glad he got my message, because it just isn’t right what the Health Department is trying to do to us. They are giving two extra points on the health inspection ratings for going to some class that we’ll have to pay a hundred dollars to attend. It’s like forcing us to buy our points. Everybody ought to be graded strictly on the inspection. Joe needs to look into that.”

In the small family-owned eateries of North Carolina conversations about local concerns and public policy are routine. It is one reason why smart elected officials who want to hear what the public is thinking make frequent visits to places like Johnson’s.

Of course, at Johnson’s there is that other reason. The cheeseburgers really are fantastic, well worth a trip from anywhere in North Carolina—whether it’s lettuce and tomato or chilli and onions that you ask Claxton to add to yours.


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries,” a guide to family owned homecooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways

(N.C. Bookwatch returns to UNC-TV when Festival’s fundraising programming is complete. On Sunday, April 5 the guest will be Theda Perdue co-author of “The Cherokee Nation and The Trail of Tears.”)

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Cheeseburgers and North Carolina politics -- A mouthful
Claxton Johnson prepares burgers at Johnson's in Siler City.

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