Birney Imes: Hamburgers like none other

October 30, 2010 10:43:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


When I was a kid, my mother on Saturday nights would pile us children into her Buick station wagon and take us to a drive-in on Sand Road for hamburgers. 


The place was called Moon''s, so named for Moon Mullen, the proprietor, a tall, swarthy, leather-faced veteran who dispensed burgers and hand-cut french fries. Teenage car hops would bring us our food on aluminum trays that hung from the Buick''s window. 


I don''t remember if we got out and played, but I do remember those hamburgers. And I remember what a thrill it was to be going to Mr. Moon''s. Some nights we sang on the way home. 


Moon''s daughter, Marjorie Swedenburg lives in Crawford. She says her dad, a master sergeant in the Army Air Corps (He still wore a flat-top.), had his choice of where he would be stationed after serving in World War II. Being a Mississippi boy, Moon chose Columbus. When the base closed, he retired rather than move. 


Not long after that, the restless airman opened a barbecue joint near the intersection of Highways 82 and 69. What is now Gardner Boulevard was in those days little more than a pig trail, Swedenburg said. 


In the summers of 1953 and ''54 Frank Ferguson was a carhop at Moon''s. Ferguson, now a county supervisor, says the place had a barbecue sauce like no other. "I''d know it today if I tasted it," he said. 


What happened to the recipe for that sauce depends on who you ask. Swedenburg says her father died with the recipe, that he never wrote it down. Ferguson says it survived, but has since been lost. 


Such is the case -- at least as far as I know -- with another locally famous barbecue sauce served on the other side of town, that of James Brown, the one-armed cook at Bob''s Place. Maybe some day those recipes, like the Rosetta Stone or the long lost photographs of bluesman Robert Johnson, will resurface in the lining of an old steamer trunk or the stuffing of a worn-out mattress. 


While Ferguson says barbecue was the thing at Moon''s, my mother would beg to differ. 


"He had the best hamburgers," she enthused, explaining that Moon got his meat fresh from Mr. Gilchrist, a local packer. 


"My daddy was so particular," says Swedenburg. "He did all the cooking himself." 


The meat, tomato and onion had to all be the same size she said. 


Eventually Moon moved his operation to Sand Road. 


"He wanted to go to the country where he wouldn''t have as much business," said Swedenburg. 


The ruse didn''t work. Ferguson remembers Moon''s occasionally closing for two or three months while the proprietor and his wife trailered to Alaska or went pheasant hunting in the Midwest. 


"The night he came back he would have a full house," said Ferguson. "No advertising. People just knew. The word would get around." 


"People would see the smoke from the barbecue pit," explained daughter Marjorie, "and know Mother and Daddy were back."  


Carhop Ferguson says money went a lot further in those days. Thirty-five cents would buy a Moon''s hamburger basket, a cheeseburger basket or a barbecue basket. "A dime tip was a big deal; a quarter and you took the rest of the night off," Ferguson said. 


While my mother loved Moon''s hamburgers, I''m sure some of the allure came from knowing she was going to spend the evening somewhere other than in her kitchen cooking and cleaning up after six kids. 


With the advent of restaurant franchises and both parents in the workforce, eating out is much more commonplace than it was in Moon Mullen''s day. The options have expanded; our taste buds demand alternatives to the steak, catfish, barbecue and hamburger that were the only choices in those days. 


While you may not be able to get one of Mr. Moon''s burgers or barbecue sandwiches, you can still find food in these parts that will make you sing.

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.