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Local writers celebrate Hamburg Inn as food for literary thought

BY ELEANOR MARSHALL | JULY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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Hamburg Inn's hot coffee and greasy burgers are both a down-home comfort food and an international sensation. But they don't just inspire speeches by presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama or conjure healthy appetites in locals and newcomers alike — the Hamburg Inn also sparks unparalleled creativity.

That's the concept behind the 2011 book The Burg: A Writers' Diner by Marybeth Slonneger, a former waitress at "the Burg" and author of several other books chronicling Iowa City's history. Several local contributing authors, including owner Dave Panther and internationally best-selling nonfiction writer Hope Edelman, read excerpts from the book at the Historical Society on July 15 as part of the Iowa City Book Festival, and discussed the diner's offerings of food for thought - not just a great meal.

"I think these days when so many small towns are going upscale and homogeneity and anonymity have become the norm, Hamburg Inn remains a testament to authenticity," Edelman said. "We're all looking for authenticity, but writers are trying to capture it, so it helps to be surrounded by it."

Many local writers shared personal memories from the counter to the kitchen at the restaurant, including Gary Sanders, who was a dishwasher there from 1979 to 1981 and credits the Hamburg Inn with changing his life, and helping him find his current job with the Center of Labor.

Slonneger said it was a poem Sanders wrote about the diner in 1990, that she read on the wall of the restaurant after a long night of waitressing, that first inspired her to chronicle the importance of the restaurant for cooking up creative endeavors.

"You can stay as long as you want, there's no sign that says you can only stay for two hours, you can keep getting refills on coffee forever," he said. "It has its own world and you're safe in that world. You're safe to write, you're safe to eat alone if you want to, you're safe to start making conversation. You're free to be yourself. There are people who come in $1,000 suits and people who come in tatters. It's liberating to anyone who's a writer."

Sanders recounted many fond memories — from the picky customer who insisted on examining his chicken before it was fried to the grad student to whom Sanders served a mountain of mashed potatoes when he complained about getting a small serving. Once, he looked up from his seat at the counter to see former president Bill Clinton sitting 10 feet away.

"I asked one of the Hamburg staff to take our picture, and when Bill Clinton put his arm around my shoulder I felt that overwhelming personal magnetism that people have noted for years. And, hell, I would have gone to bed with him right then," he said.

Sanders said he knew no one in Iowa City before being hired there, but before long he had been enveloped in a community of cooks, waiters, doctors and postmen. And although much has changed since his early memories — when he started he was the youngest member of the wait staff at 32 years old — he said the place has kept its original flavor.

Panther, whose father owned the restaurant from Hamburg Inn No. 1's opening in 1935 until he passed it on in 1979, said the restaurant's longevity and character make it a prime for working on projects, and he often gets requests from university students to film scenes after hours.

He said he remembered his father getting up at 4 a.m. to start the grill for chili and fries, and when he got old enough Panther peeled 4-500 pounds of potatoes in one sitting to stock the restaurant.

"It's not just the food, it's the ambiance," he said.

Larry Baker, author and former Iowa City City Councilman offered a similar perspective.

"A place like Hamburg Inn becomes the inorganic form of comfort food," he said. "Part of your past idealized and returned to, and, as you sit down at a booth or at the counter, you inhale the aroma of your own memory."


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