Many lists of unusual state statutes say it's against the law in Oklahoma to take a bite of someone else's hamburger.
KGOU listener Greg Elwell asked How Curious: Is this a real law?
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Claire Donnelly: Hamburger patties and sliced onions sizzle on the flattop at Robert’s Grill in El Reno. It’s lunchtime and Greg Elwell and I sit on stools at the long, red counter. Elwell is a food writer and he runs the website I Ate Oklahoma.
Greg Elwell: See, they put the bun on top of the burger while it's grilling and it steams the bun in the onion steam.
Donnelly: Yes, duh, we're absolutely here for burgers. But we’re also here because Greg has a question for How Curious.
Elwell: Every time Oklahoma ends up on one of those “only in your state: the weirdest laws in your state” lists, the one that invariably shows up is that in Oklahoma, it is illegal to take a bite of someone else’s hamburger.
Donnelly: This is How Curious from KGOU, exploring your questions about the state we call home. I’m Claire Donnelly. Greg’s right. On lists of weird laws, this one comes up a lot. And as a food writer, he has a personal stake.
Elwell: As someone who takes a bite of a lot of hamburgers, I was justifiably worried. I thought "Oh no, the cops are after me."
Donnelly: All right, back to Robert’s Grill.
Edward Graham: We’re known for onion burgers and coneys, which is hot dogs. And we’ve been in business since 1926.
Donnelly: This is the owner, Edward Graham. Now, if you don’t know what an onion burger is, which you might not if you’re not from Oklahoma or just not a burger expert: It’s a hamburger with grilled onions. And if it’s the real deal, the sliced onions are grilled on the patty.
Graham: We start out...everybody starts out doing dishes and onions. The 50 pound bags, you peel them and then...We got a slicer now. When I started, we had to hand slice them. But do it and you don’t play around, you get done and it’ll only take you about 10 minutes.
Donnelly: I ask Graham if he’s ever heard of it being illegal to bite someone else’s hamburger.
Graham: Not really that it’s illegal, but it might be bad for your health. Because if somebody took a bite of my burger, I’d probably punch them.
Donnelly: Down the street from Robert’s Grill is another El Reno restaurant known for its onion burgers, Sid’s Diner.
Marty Hall: My name is Marty Hall, M-A-R-T-Y-H-A-L-L. And I named this diner after my dad, Sid, OK? And Dad never saw it. He died of a heart attack before we could open it. So that's who I named this diner after. I’ve been doing this 50 years and I know all about hamburgers.
Donnelly: For Hall, the question about whether it’s illegal to bite someone’s hamburger prompts more questions.
Hall: Now, am I...am I eating the hamburger also and I ask you to take a bite?
Donnelly: This is actually a great point. Like if I tell you, “Hey, try some of this hamburger,” and hand it to you, and you take a bite, are you breaking the law? Am I breaking the law? To answer that question, we’d need to find the actual law and that proved to be pretty tricky. Greg Elwell and I searched the Oklahoma state laws online and couldn’t find anything except for this:
Elwell: Any of the following facts shall be prima facie evidence that horse meat was intended to be sold unlawfully for human consumption. C: The presence of horse meat mixed and commingled with the meat of cattle, sheep, swine or goats in hamburger, sausage, or other processed meat products.
Donnelly: Then I called a bunch of people at the state capitol. No one there had ever heard of it. I also checked with the state health department, in case maybe it was written into the health code. Nothing there either. I even asked Capt. Bo Matthews at the Oklahoma City Police Department.
Capt. Bo Matthews: I've never heard of it.
Donnelly: Have you ever arrested anyone?
Matthews: No. For that?
Donnelly: I searched the Oklahoman newspaper archives for the word “hamburger” and went through decades of articles. I found a lot of spaghetti sauce recipes and a story about 1,200 pounds of hamburger meat falling on a man when he was unloading a truck. He broke several ribs. But no hamburger law. Honestly, I was kind of hoping for a story about one lawmaker getting mad at another for sneaking a bite of her lunch and then using her legislative powers to make it illegal. No dice.
Rick Knighton: The particular statutory provision may not necessarily be written to refer specifically to hamburgers. I would suspect that it’s going to use language that’s a bit broader than that.
Donnelly: This is Rick Knighton. He’s an assistant city attorney in Norman. Some of those websites with the lists of weird laws say restaurants pushed for this statute because they wanted to keep people from sharing food.
Knighton: If I’m a restaurant owner and I want to prohibit people from sharing meals, I don't want to prohibit--I want to prevent them from sharing all meals, not just hamburgers.
Donnelly: I couldn’t find any Oklahoma laws making this illegal either. But imagine if a law against biting someone else’s hamburger did exist: How would a lawyer handle the case?
Knighton: It would be very difficult. I mean, I suspect, I suspect that it sounds like it’s a criminal provision. And it would be...I mean--just think of how bizarre this sounds--I guess the complaining witness would be the restaurant owner and the defendant would be the restaurant owner’s customers. So some restaurant owner or employee would see somebody sharing a hamburger and they would call the police and the police would show up. And they would want a report taken that outlined the basic facts that, you know, these people came in, they ordered one meal, they shared it and it’s in violation of the statutory provision that prohibits that.
Donnelly: But he says if you were a customer and a restaurant owner filed a criminal charge against you for that, you probably wouldn’t go back to that restaurant and it would be a PR disaster. So that wouldn’t be in the best interest of restaurant owners. And what about the other hypothetical situation, which is what I thought of when I first heard about this law: You’re sitting at your table, peacefully eating a hamburger and then some random person walks in, comes over, picks up your hamburger and takes a bite out of it?
Knighton: You probably could argue that it’s a theft. I mean, that’s something of value, it belongs to me, and you’re taking it and you don’t intend to return it--or at least not the part that you ate. So if it didn’t involve any physical contact, it could be a theft. If it did involve physical contact, it could be a battery and a theft.
Donnelly: If it was physical contact? Like what kind of physical contact?
Knighton: If you had the hamburger in your hand and I just bent over and took a bite out of it, I mean, even though I’m contacting you arguably through the hamburger, that would still be considered a battery.
Donnelly: I ask question asker Greg Elwell what he thinks about all of this.
Elwell: The internet seems to think this is a common law in Oklahoma and yet, everybody we talked to who works with burgers...if anybody was going to know if sharing a hamburger was illegal, you’d think it’d be someplace selling hamburgers and they haven’t heard of it. I mean, that’s pretty busted.
Donnelly: But then how did the hamburger law idea get started? A couple of people I talked to say it could have started as a law in a small town and then people exaggerated until it included the entire state. So it could still be a law somewhere in Oklahoma. Go check the ordinances in your city or town and let us know.
Donnelly: In conclusion, how do you feel?
Elwell: I could go for a hamburger.
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