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Deep-fried devotion
Burgers boiled in oil have own niche in area fast-food market

By Deangelo McDaniel
DAILY Staff Writer

dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com 340-2469

MOULTON — A Saturday telephone call about three weeks ago did not surprise Helen NeSmith.

Britny Bolton, Robert Weems, Shawn McGee and Eric Bryant at NeSmith Jumbo Hamburgers in Moulton.
DAILY Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Britny Bolton, Robert Weems, Shawn McGee and Eric Bryant at NeSmith Jumbo Hamburgers in Moulton.
A former Moulton resident wanted her to make him 20 cheeseburgers and wait for him to drive from Tennessee to get them.

She was almost ready to close. NeSmith waited, as she has for customers for more than 30 years.

"We've always gotten those kind of calls," she said.

NeSmith Jumbo Hamburgers downtown on Court Street is the oldest hamburger joint in Moulton. Little has changed in the restaurant that the NeSmith family has owned since 1966.

The family cooks the hamburgers in the original stainless steel frying pan. The menu is almost the same.

There are similar hamburger places in Decatur, Hartselle and Athens.

Decatur has C.F. Penn Hamburgers, and Hartselle has Willie Burgers. In Athens, there is Dubs Burgers.

The owners refuse to talk about their "secret recipes," and if you have to ask how many calories a hamburger contains, do not bother eating one.

The cooks fry them in a pan containing between 3 and 5 gallons of grease. The hamburgers are flattened in view of the customers, scooped up with a spatula and placed in the grease. Most of the frying pans hold about 36 hamburgers.

Not as simple as it looks

It seems simple, but it is not, according to the cooks. NeSmith and her sister, Betty Garrison, have cooked about every NeSmith hamburger in the past 20 years.

"You have to know exactly how much meat to put in your hand," NeSmith explained. "If you get it too thick, the hamburger won't cook to the inside. Cooking is an art."

Depending on how hot the grease is, NeSmith said, it takes between 13 and 15 minutes to cook each hamburger.

"You just watch it," she said. "When the edges start to get brown, you flip it over to the other side."

Louise Terry, an employee at Penn Hamburgers in Decatur for almost 20 years, said she can tell when they have cooked enough.

"You just know," she said.

Penn started in 1927

C.F. Penn is perhaps the most recognizable of the hamburger places.

Charles Franklin Penn of Hartselle began making what he called his "secret recipe" hamburgers on April 22, 1927. His first restaurant was a 10-by-18-foot wooden building on iron wheels.

He opened a second location in Decatur in 1939, followed by a third branch in Birmingham in the 1950s. Cullman got a Penn Hamburgers in 1966, and at some point, Moulton had one.

After C.F. Penn died in 1958, his son, Hugh F. Penn, took control. Hugh Penn died in 1997, and his children assumed ownership.

In its first 35 to 40 years, Penn served only hamburgers, cold drinks and milk, but later added hot dogs, chicken fingers and french fries.

Burger for a dime

C.F. Penn sold the first hamburgers for 10 cents, or three for 25 cents. The price increased to 14 cents during World War II and 20 cents in 1962.

Myra Aldridge, 53, of Decatur remembers when the hamburgers were 20 cents. She grew up on Grant Street just east of Penn's old location.

"Daddy would sneak us down here for a hamburger," she said. "I've probably been eating them over 50 years. When you've got to have one, you've just got to have one."

On the day of this interview, Aldridge had to have one. She received a telephone call from her sister after leaving a doctor's office.

"She asked me to meet her at Ruby Tuesday's for lunch," she said. "I told her I was going to Penn's. I had to have one."

Nothing fancy

Aldridge said her children in Arab want to go to C.F. Penn when they come home.

"They don't want some fancy restaurant," she explained. "They want to come here. They have started taking them back to Arab because their friends like them."

Hartselle, the birthplace of Penn Hamburgers, no longer has a Penn's restaurant. The building on Main Street that housed the restaurant had structural problems.

Co-owner Franklin Penn explained in February 2000 that it was too costly to move to another location and too expensive to repair the building. Hartselle sold its last Penn hamburger Feb. 19, 2000.

The Decatur location on East Moulton Street continues to serve Penn hamburgers.

"I think we get just about all the Hartselle people now," Terry said.

Willie Burgers

The Penn closing did not leave Hartselle residents without a place to get a "deep fried" burger. Just down the street near Main and Sparkman streets is Willie Burgers.

Lawrence County native Willis Sapp purchased the place from Johnny Penn about nine years ago. The place was called Johnny's Burgers. People started calling them "Willie Burgers" instead of "Willis Burgers" so Sapp changed the name of the restaurant to "Willie Burgers."

Valerie Kelley, 54, moved to Decatur from Virginia when she was 16. She has been working at Penn for 12 years.

"We don't have any places like this in Virginia," Kelley said. "My husband knew about Penn, and I started eating them with him."

Gurney and Nell Yates sold hamburgers in the NeSmith location before Hollis and Ruby NeSmith opened the restaurant in 1966. Dwight NeSmith, a former Lawrence County Board of Education member, persuaded his parents to open NeSmith Jumbo Hamburgers.

Back then, you could get a hamburger and a drink for 37 cents.

"A burger for 25 cents and a drink for 10 cents," NeSmith recalled. "The taxes were 2 cents."

NeSmith has outlived every restaurant that opened downtown and has survived the fast-food growth on Alabama 157.

It hasn't been easy, the owners say, but they have loyal customers who prefer them to McDonald's or Hardee's.

"These things are hard to operate today because wholesalers no longer sell to us," NeSmith said. "They only sell products by the truckload, and we don't need that."

When the NeSmiths acquired the restaurant in 1966, wholesalers — except those delivering meat — delivered to the front door.

"They all quit us," NeSmith said. "It really upsets you because you have been a good customer all these years."

NeSmith will be 65 this year, but she has no plans to retire.

"I can't see myself sitting in a recliner at home," she said.

NeSmith arrives at work daily at 8 a.m. It takes two to three hours to prepare for the lunch crowd, she explained.

All done by hand

She does everything by hand. Her workers chop the onions by hand. The meat goes through a grinder, but the ingredients are added and mixed by hand.

"You just have to do it this way to get it right," NeSmith said.

On most days, customers arrive early.

The most popular words in the restaurant are: "Give me one all the way."

That means one hamburger with onions, mustard and ketchup.

Cheese hasn't always been an option.

"I can't remember when we started selling cheeseburgers," NeSmith recalled. "We had customers requesting it, so we started serving it."

Customers have requested lettuce and tomato. NeSmith has the same response to the request.

She smiled, mentioned that she was going to use bad grammar and said: "I tell them we ain't got none, and we ain't gonna get none."

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