Photo: rishi989, Flickr
A "slider" can be a sneaky baseball pitch, a 1972 album by T. Rex, a turtle of the genus Trachemys, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians, a potentiometer control, or the little glass tube that connects the bong reservoir to the bowl, but, increasingly, it has come to mean a Lilliputian-size hamburger.
Food historians sometimes trace the origin of this usage to White Castle, the world's first hamburger chain.
The hamburger itself was brought to New York City in the early 19th century by German sailors, who taught cooks in harborside eateries to make patties of ground beef -- as yet, there was no bun. These patties were named after the city of Hamburg, the busiest port in Germany. So appealing was the concept, that hamburgers soon spread to the upper levels of society, and by 1834, New York's most effete restaurant, Delmonico's, listed a "Hamburg Steak" on its menu.
No one can agree who first slapped patty to bun, but by the early 20th century, the hamburger -- now with a bun -- had become a popular portable meal for fairgoers as well as factory workers. But what really shot this ground-meat treat into orbit was a restaurant chain founded in Witchita, Kansas in 1921, improbably named The White Castle System of Eating Houses. The technical-sounding moniker reflected the roots of America's fast food industry in the workplace efficiency methods espoused by Henry Ford in his automobile factories, which had captured the imagination of the nation.
The centerpiece of the White Castle menu was a five-cent burger of modest size, that would, in later incarnations, be riddled with small holes so it could be steamed with onions on a griddle. Though this method of cooking now seems arcane and entirely off the mark, the method has persisted to this day at over 400 franchise locations.
In the way Americans are prone to do, with a mixture of appreciation and contempt, a number of facetious terms were invented to describe White Castle's cheap and greasy miniature burgers. "Belly buster," "gut bomb," and "slider" are all, according to one source, terms invented by enthusiastic patrons to describe White Castle burgers. (Though one source claims "sliders" originated with patrons of the competing White Tower burger chain, where the car hops dressed like nurses, founded in Milwaukee in 1928.)
True or not, two more stories about the origin of the term bear mentioning. One is that a barnstorming pilot named Earl Rowland undertook a cross-country flight in 1929, at which he boasted of eating "sliders" at 98 White Castle locations. The second is more plausible: Beginning in the 1940s, sailors in the U.S. Navy began referring to the preformed burgers as "sliders" due to their greasiness, and to the cheeseburgers as "sliders with a lid." References for several slider stories are provided by food historian Barry Popik.
Whatever its origin, White Castle took out a patent on a variant of the term (spelling it "slyder") in 1983, with the idea of reclaiming what they thought was their invention -- but the new spelling never stuck. Meanwhile, the appealing term had become ubiquitous from one end of the country to the other to describe any sort of smallish, greasy burger. But around 2007, it was appropriated to describe quite a different culinary phenomenon.
While "slider" had heretofore been used to describe unctuous working-class edibles of no particular culinary distinction, suddenly bonafide chefs started appropriating the word to describe miniature hamburgers of their own invention. Obviously, fetishizing these tiny treats -- usually even smaller than the White Castle hamburger -- had the effect of allowing the chefs to sell a small bun and smaller wad of meat at a severely inflated price, a boon to restaurateurs during an economic downturn. It accorded well with the upscale diner's diet-conscious aspiration to eat smaller amounts of food, but enjoy them more.
Suddenly, sliders were everywhere. While we can't put our finger exactly on when the usage changed, there are several milestones. In 1996, a new East Village hamburger restaurant called Sassy's Sliders began offering an upscale version of the White Castle original. The use of the term grew gradually. By 2005, there were several restaurants in New York selling upscale sliders, but the writers who mentioned them still felt the need to define the term, indicating that it still seemed new to them.
In 2005, the New York restaurant Pop Burger – a strange combination of nightclub and fast food joint – started selling a pair of tiny burgers in a specially designed cardboard box for $5, though they didn't call them sliders. The same year, the Lower East Side's AKA Café was selling something called a steak slider, indicating that the term was already being expanded to describe any small, round meat sandwich, filled with ground beef or not. By 2007, chef Joey Campanaro of Greenwich Village's Little Owl was making sliders out of exotic combinations of meat, and this started a trend toward reinventing the composition of the patty itself, often incorporating beef, pork, and veal, and utilizing non-standard cuts like ribs, brisket, and skirt steak. We found ourselves at the dawn of the Slider Age.
Nowadays, every celebrity chef fools around with sliders, and it has become an important staple of the hamburger culture. The Napa Valley's Thomas Keller, perhaps the most distinguished chef in the nation, has introduced them at his Bouchon Bakery, while Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart can be seen grilling them on TV. The website menupages.com lists 341 restaurants in New York City that sell sliders, and the phenomenon has gone country-wide.
Blogger Stephanie Callahan of chicagonow.com reports, "Chicago is currently obsessed with 'sliders.' " Earlier this year, Seattle Weekly published a list of Top 5 Sliders in Seattle, including small hot round sandwiches made from things other than ground meat. Jesse's Grill in Normal, Illinois is now serving pot-roast sliders. The meaning of the term continues to expand like an oil slick.
Naturally, family-dining franchise restaurants have jumped belatedly into the act, and now you can find sliders -- often served in pairs, but still representing far less meat and bun than conventional burgers -- in Fuddrucker's, Applebee's, Cheesecake Factory, Uno's, and TGI Friday's. It just goes to show, given enough advertising dollars, less can be made to seem more glamorous than more.