Discovering how a daily dining staple is so, so interesting.
Kyle Murray: I’m thrilled to have the chance to sit down with you. I know your schedule must be pretty busy.
JJ’s Place Cheeseburger: Oh the pleasure is all mine. I’m honored that you view me as important enough to interview.
KM: You’re kind of a culinary staple here!
JJPC: Stop! I’m blushing! [JJPC lets out a small mixture of water and myoglobin]
KM: So to start us off, would you mind introducing yourself?
JJ’s Place Cheeseburger: Of course! My name is JJ’s Place Cheeseburger—actually JJ’s Place Cheeseburger III but people don’t really talk about my father or grandfather so JJ’s Place Cheeseburger is fine. I use he/him pronouns. Harvard College, Class of ’86.
JJPC: Yeah. I’m a Harvardian—shoutout to Adams House! I concentrated, sorry, I graduated with an A.B. in American Studies and Religion.
KM: Huh, okay. So why Columbia?
JJPC: Well, just look at the resumes of the admin—we all bleed Cambridge crimson.
KM: It’s honestly more of a maroon, in my opinion.
JJPC: And this is why you’re at Columbia.
KM: Anyway, that’s an interesting combination of majors.
JJPC: I agree. It really came together during my senior year. See, my senior thesis was about the rise of the Christian Right in California. It was a pretty cutting-edge analysis at the time, I don’t know. Like, I got a Bowdoin Prize and everything. I was working really hard to get all the information—like harder than most of my peers. I have to acknowledge the help that my Dad provided; he owns a polling company. Also, my grandfather, JJ’s Place Cheeseburger I, was a senator.
KM: Seems like a politically involved family.
JJPC: Funny you say that. My grandfather always said we were gonna be like the next Kennedys but with a more modern spin. With my father in polling, we could really navigate the entire field.
KM: Did you have any political dreams?
JJPC: What Ivy League student doesn’t? But it was too much pressure—my family expected me to run for office and I wasn’t in love with the idea. I didn’t feel like I had freedom, more so just along for the ride. I had different plans in my heart.
KM: When did your path and theirs split?
JJPC: If you could believe it, I was a finalist for the Rhodes. I burnt myself trying to get the award and was left utterly exhausted when I didn’t receive it. I worked so hard on crafting a vision for myself, a vision that was successful on paper and from an outsider’s perspective, but that person was not personally fulfilling. So after graduating—with honors, by the way—I wanted to find myself. I had also recently come into a sum of money so I took time off instead of rushing into the professional world. In college I had a vision of myself as a writer or, if that failed, maybe just a person with interesting stories. Sometimes a story can take you farther than a perfect pedigree.
KM: Everyone loves a good story. What did you do?
JJPC: I had always loved Machu Picchu as a slider. I remember my mother had a book on Peru which I loved to thumb through because the pictures were mesmerizing. I booked a flight a week after graduating and landed with only a backpack, a few changes of clothes, and a Spanish-English dictionary. And boy, the Andes were beautiful—especially the Inca Trail. I have a lot of great memories, some of the fondest in my life. I fell in love there, actually, but I prefer not to talk about it; it didn’t last. Then, after spending some time in South America, I traveled to Asia. As a Buddhist, I wanted to see firsthand some of the places that were so vital to my spiritual philosophy or to immerse myself in a place where that’s the main culture.
KM: Oh, were you raised Buddhist? Or how did you come into it?
JJPC: No, haha. I was raised as a Congregationalist. It’s actually kind of a sore subject in my family. That, and my divergence from their life plan for me. I’m kind of like the black sheep of the family—or maybe a better way is saying that I’m well-done in a family full of medium-rares; we taste pretty similar but we’re also pretty divisive. It also doesn’t help that my Younger Sister eventually took my place as the Cheeseburger family politician. And she’s been successful at it too. What was that second question you had?
KM: I was curious how you were introduced to Buddhism if you were raised Christian.
JJPC: Right. Eastern Philosophy was really taking hold in my circles at Harvard Yard. People passed around heavily annotated books and it either really clicked for you or it didn’t. I can’t remember the book I eventually received—the cover was practically falling off though—but I read it and it changed how I thought about everything. I saw how I didn’t have to do extremes but should strive for some balance.
KM: Did you find what you were looking for in Asia?
JJPC: I found so much there and yet also got so many questions. As much as I enjoyed engaging with the people of Tibet and Thailand for a period of six months I spent in a monastery, I couldn’t shake the feeling of not quite fitting in there. I’m actually just realizing that as we speak; I hadn’t thought about it in a while.
KM: Do you think that feeling motivated your return?
JJPC: Probably. Pretty soon after I had that moment of crisis. I was trying to find myself by doing yet another extreme. And in that moment I felt drawn back to that culture I was raised in—maybe it was like Saturn Return. To me, New York represented that epitomized American place. I flew back, asked for a buzz cut at the first barbershop I saw, and started working at Goldman Sachs.
KM: It was that easy? You just walked in?
JJPC: I had a few family friends and classmates who helped me land there. And the stories I had made for great conversations during interviews.
KM: Still, how did you arrive at Morningside Heights?
JJPC: Oh, the story is pretty straightforward from here. Made some smart moves to beat the market before the dot-com bubble and retired from finance—and honestly from working as a whole. Got really into cooking; I had more money than I knew what to do with so I started spending it on ingredients and cookbooks. And that’s when I remembered—I’m a Cheeseburger!
KM: But why Columbia? There are so many other places to be a burger.
JJPC: I liked the academic scene—I’m a student at my core. Always learning, always trying to strike a balance between what I know and what I have yet to learn. That’s life, my life really. And I’m satisfied with how it’s gone. And then it’ll start again. I’d relive this life a thousand ways. And I do. When this body is finished—thrown out or eaten—I return as the next burger on the grill. This all keeps going for me. It’s endless, endless until it’s not anymore. But I still have a lot to learn so it’s going to be this way for a while. I can’t wait. Isn’t that beautiful?
KM: It is. It really is.
[At this point a person walks by and their leg catches the corner of the paper basket where JJ’s Place Cheeseburger III sat. It falls off the ledge. JJ’s Place Cheeseburger III falls to the ground. They’re gone now, or at least in that sandwich. But I know I’ll see them again. There will be another time and another burger.]
JJ’s Place Cheeseburger III via Author