Double decker burger eaters can be divided into two categories. You’re either a white sauce or a red sauce consumer. We know that one local double decker burger dressed theirs in white, with tartar sauce, before Frisch’s – Green Derby’s Derby Boy. Digging deeper, we find even another that predates Frisch’s. Like the Derby Boy, the Big Tucker, also has Kentucky roots, deep into Appalachia in Russell County, Kentucky, near today’s Lake Cumberland.
The Big Tucker, is a product of Tucker’s restaurant, an Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati institution. Escom Garth Tucker, and his wife Maynie Gosser founded Tucker’s Restaurant on East 13th Street in 1946. They came north from the rural crossroads town of Ono, Kentucky, looking for factory jobs and a better life. Escom’s family hailed from a fifth generation farming family whose land was named Tucker Ridge. The land was named for their earliest ancestor Gabriel Tucker, who settled there just when Kentucky was becoming a state.
Escom and Maynie Tucker behind the counter at their original East 13th Street Diner.
But why did Green Derby and Tucker’s choose tartar sauce over the more popular Thousand Island dressing for their double decker burgers? Both California burger powerhouses McDonald’s and Big Boy dressed theirs with Thousand Island.
Tartar sauce is just mayo and chopped pickles, but Thousand Island is mayo with ketchup. Was there a shortage of ketchup in the Midwest after World War II? Or was tartar sauce a Kentucky Appalachian condiment first?
In the Phillipines a product called Banana Ketchup was invented during a World War II shortage of tomatoes on the islands. It’s alarmingly chunky and has an unnaturally iridescent red dye to make it look like real tomato ketchup. But did the tomato shortage extend into the U.S.? We do know that the “Blue Stamp” rationing in the United States during the war covered canned, bottled, and processed foods like soups, baby food and ketchup. It seems ketchup was harder to obtain. Even though a lot of people did make their own ketchup in the World War II era, they also made their own mayonnaise. Mayo was a lot easier to make and just required whisking together eggs, vinegar and oil. Chop up some readily available pickles and you had basic tartar sauce. Thousand Island was much harder to make if ketchup wasn’t available. And there was no Sysco Corporation back in 1946 you could call at any hour to order a tub of red sauce when you ran out.
Thousand Island dressing is named after that island region in the upper St. Lawrence River, between the United States and Canada. Earliest references to its existence date back to 1912 as a salad dressing, not a protein condiment. References to tartar sauce date back much earlier, to the mid 19th century, but mostly for seafood, not beef.
Both the Derby Boy and the Big Tucker were dressed with tartar sauce in 1946. Frisch’s started dressing their Big Boy with tartar sauce later in 1946 and early 1947.
As we moved out of wartime shortages and into the 1950s and further into the 1960s, other local double decker burgers popped up. They either mimicked the McDonald’s Big Mac (Thousand Island) or the local Frisch’s Big Boy (tartar sauce).
Zip’s in Mt. Lookout, has been serving burgers since opening in 1926. Unfortunately, their Double Zip Burger’s first introduction is lost to history. It may have predated both the Big Tucker and the Derby Boy, but it’s dressed with neither tartar or thousand island, just mayo, but only if requested.
Quatman’s Cafe, founded in 1965 in Norwood, had a double decker much like Zips. It’s served with mayo, while ketchup and mustard are left tableside.
Parkmour Drive-Ins popped up in the 1950s in Cincinnati. They had their Jumbo Burger with a special red sauce –that was neither tarter or thousand island – which people craved and still talk about.
Carter’s was another drive in that popped up in several locations in the 1950s. They had their Big Burger, a sloppily mayo dressed double decker with American cheese, pickles and shredded lettuce. Another mayo dressed double decker, the Blue Ash Boy, is served at Blue Ash Chili along with American cheese, tomato, lettuce, and onion.
Neff Jenkins had their double decker King Burger at their one location on Duck Creek and Smith Road in the 1950s, which was a white sauce dressed burger.
The Sixty Second Shops, were 24 hour burger shops located near street car stands. They had a tartar dressed burger called the Big Sixty. Many considered them a clone of the Frisch’s Big Boy, but they were open longer and got the after bar business. The Blue Jay in Northside started serving their Tom Burger in 1967 with tartar sauce, lettuce, and pickles.
A popular 1970s chain, Red Barn, had the Big Barney, dressed with tartar sauce and American cheese. One popular location was on Hamilton Avenue near Galbraith Road in North College Hill.
Sandy’s was a competitor of McDonald’s who had a Big Scot Burger like the Big Mac, at their two locations on Beechmont and Glenway Avenue on the west side. Although long closed, their burgers are recreated yearly at WestFest for nostalgic west siders.
Another local shop in Springfield Township was the Double Scoreburger, which was dressed with Thousand Island, lettuce, pickles, and American cheese. They were operated by a former Cincinnati Bengal, and were open only a few years in the late 1970s at Winton and Kemper Roads in the Promenade Shopping Center. Their double decker was greasier and had more sauce than the Big Mac but it was indeed delicious. I ate my fair share of them after soccer and T-ball games as an adolescent.
Whatever the reason behind tartar sauce dressed burgers, they became very popular in Cincinnati. Like our chili parlors, the big burger joints that chained, like Frisch’s, over took the small mom and pops. Frisch’s tartar sauce became a Cincinnati food icon and expats around the world order it online. No local Thousand Island sauce exists to rival the Frisch’s condiment, making Cincinnati largely a town of white-dressed burger eaters.