The first rule of Durham Burger Club: no guys allowed. The second: meat only. No vegetarian or “other” patties allowed. Excess is permitted, even encouraged. Shame is not.
It’s a bustling Monday evening in December at Bar Virgile, and I am meeting with founder Kathryn Banas and members Kaitlin Briggs and Savannah Lennertz for cheeseburgers as part of an unofficial meeting of the Durham Burger Club. The women-only club meets monthly to eat burgers and catch up on life, but also to celebrate something that’s not often lauded: the female appetite.
Male critics around America make a sport of naming the best burgers. The Art of Manliness website has pages and pages of entries about burgers: how to eat them, how to cook them, even how to hold them. Carl’s Jr. has built a whole brand out of women eating burgers under the male gaze: Paris Hilton, Kate Upton, Heidi Klum, and Padma Lakshmi have all licked, bitten, or moaned their way through a hamburger too big for their mouths.
In popular culture, to eat a hamburger is to fulfill a man’s appetite, gustatory or otherwise.
But the Durham Burger Club focuses on the appetites of women and insists on how expansive they can be. For Briggs and Lennertz, this makes the club a welcoming space to develop friendships with other women, and they’re grateful to Banas for setting up this unique sorority.
Banas, meanwhile, is in it foremost for the food: “I live to eat, so a food-based club made total sense, especially burgers, which contain my holy trinity of deliciousness: red meat, carbs, and bacon,” Banas says.
Banas started her club in 2009 in New York City, when she was twenty-four years old, to catch up with friends who were scattered across the city and busy with new careers. Banas says they chose to exclude men because everyone was cycling through horrible boyfriends, and because she wanted it to be a safe space to indulge in greasy foods without being judged.
Sometimes, she and her friends would go out to a burger place, look around, and see other groups of women only eating salad, Banas says.
“In NYC, there are so many beautiful women, and there is so much internalized pressure to eat a salad at every restaurant, especially for the members [of the New York Burger Club] pursuing careers in the performing arts,” Banas says. “We could enjoy life, enjoy food, enjoy each other’s company, in public, unashamed.”
In 2015, Banas moved to Durham. She knew she wanted to keep up the monthly tradition in her new city, so she decided to start a Durham chapter. (The NYC Burger Club still exists, and there’s also a Boston chapter.) Banas invited a handful of the women she knew in the area and held the inaugural meeting of the Durham club in July of that year at Dain’s on Ninth Street. It’s met nearly monthly since then.
To date, the Durham Burger Club has eaten burgers at thirty-seven different Triangle restaurants. Favorites include Beyù Caffè’s oversized sliders, Only Burger’s classic beef burger, Shiki Sushi’s wagyu burgers, and Town Hall’s pimento-cheese-topped Carolina Burger.
Banas, a self-proclaimed burger expert, grew up in New Orleans, where she was known among her friends as a food evangelist generally. But her love of burgers looms largest. She’s more than just an aficionado; she’s a fanatic.
On that Monday night, she shows up wearing a Durham Burger Club T-shirt, accessorized with burger earrings, a burger necklace, and a curated selection of her extensive burger paraphernalia collection: a dog toy, mugs, Bob’s Burgers socks, underwear, Christmas ornaments, a kitchen timer, a pillow, greeting cards, a stress ball, a salt and pepper shaker, and commemorative glasses from famous national burger establishments. And this is only scratching the surface.
“My whole life is burger-themed,” Banas admits. “So this article is the pinnacle of my life!”
Banas, the club’s de facto president runs a tight ship, selecting interesting and delicious burger joints to visit the third Monday of each month. “First-bite” pictures are mandatory at every meetup for every member. (I’m now immortalized in the “first-bite” archive, chomping down on Bar Virgile’s cheeseburger with burger juice sliding down my fingers.)
The burger club broadly agrees on what distinguishes a good burger from a great burger. Juiciness, for one. When given the option at Bar Virgile, each orders her burger “pink”—I imagine any digression might not be well-received.
A solid bun can also distinguish a great burger. Brioche and potato buns are favorites. Toppings are more personal, up to the whims of the individual eater.
Banas jokes that she often takes the lead in doubling patties, asking for sides of fries, and adding accouterments to her burger. (She can’t resist bacon.) She wants to set an example for the other members, so they don’t feel shy about ordering exactly what they want, no matter how excessive it might be.
It’s this spirit that animates the Durham Burger Club: It’s not just about communing with other women and forming friendships; it’s also about being as ravenous as you want to be and knowing you won’t be judged for it.
It sounds simple. But it can feel radical for women who are conditioned to pick at lettuce and downplay their appetites.
And it’s that spirit that keeps women coming back every month.
“I remember my first burger club at Only Burger,” Lennertz, says. “Everyone was dressed up in their cute fall clothes, and they walked up to order, and they were like, ‘Can I have a triple cheeseburger, please, with extra bacon and chili on my fries, please? Also, can you give me a vat of ranch on the side?’ I knew then that this was the club for me.”
Follow Katie Jane Fernelius on Twitter @kjfernelius. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.