The History of The Hamburger
In The Beginning…
We take a look at the enigmatic origins of the world’s most popular meal…the Hamburger!
If you look back a few thousands of years, you’ll find that even the ancient Egyptians ate ground meat patties, and down through the ages ground meat has been shaped into patties and eaten all over the world under many different names. But exactly when and where the modern hamburger was born is much harder to pin down. Several folks over in the US – from New Haven, Connecticut, to Tulsa, Oklahoma – confidently claim their ancestors invented it.
As controversial as it is, the history of the hamburger is truly a story that has been run through the meat grinder. Legends say it began with the Mongols, who stashed scraps of beef, lamb or mutton under their saddles as they spanned the globe in their campaign to conquer the known world, much as McDonald’s has done in the last half century.
The softened meat was formed into flat patties, and after enough time spent sandwiched between the asses of man and beast, the meat became tender enough to eat raw – certainly a boon to swift-moving riders not keen to dismount.
When Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, and his hordes invaded Moscow, they naturally brought their unique dietary ground meat with them. The Russians adopted it into their own cuisine with the name “Steak Tartare,” (Tartars being their name for the Mongols). Over many years, Russian chefs adapted and developed this dish and refined it by adding chopped onions and raw eggs.
Later, as global trade picked up, seafarers brought this idea back to the port city of Hamburg, Germany, where the Deutschvolk decided to mold it with breadcrumbs into a steak shape and cook it, making something that, outside of Hamburg, was referred to as “Hamburg steak,” a dish now most popular today, in of all places, Japan, where almost every menu lists it under Western fare as “steak cooked in the Hamburg style” or “hanbagu.”
But enough fishing in European and Asian waters; let’s cut bait here. Somehow ground beef gets to America. Somehow it’s put on a bun. But by whom? Surely, the historical record should become clearer once we land on American shores. Sadly, it doesn’t.
While some have written that the first American hamburger (actually Hamburger Steak) was served in 1834 at Delmonico’s Restaurant, New York City, this oft-quoted origin is not based on the original Delmonico menu but rather a facsimile, which was debunked; the published facsimile could not possibly be correct, as the printer of the purported original menu was not even in business in 1834!
If a ground beef patty served between two slices of bread is a hamburger, then credit goes to Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, who, at the age of 15, sold hamburgers from his ox-drawn food stand at the Outagamie County Fair. He went to the fair and set up a stand selling meatballs.
Business wasn’t good and he quickly realised that it was because meatballs were too difficult to eat while strolling around the fair.
In a flash of innovation, he flattened the meatballs, placed them between two slices of bread and called his new creation a hamburger. He was known to many as “Hamburger Charlie.” He returned to sell hamburgers at the fair every year until his death in 1951, and he would entertain people with his guitar and mouth organ and this jingle:
“Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers hot; onions in the middle, pickle on top. Makes your lips go flippity flop.”
The town of Seymour is so certain about this claim that it calls itself the “Home of the Hamburger,” holds the record for the world’s largest hamburger, and hosts a hamburger festival every year.
To be fair, though, descendants of county fair concessionaire Frank Menches, and If If restaurateur Louis Lassen, also claim their ancestors invented the hamburger – served on bread – in 1892 and 1900, respectively.
Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, claims to have invented our favourite meal. From its website: “One day in the year 1900 a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment’s owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sent the customer on his way, so the story goes, with America’s first hamburger.”
This claim is countered by the family of Frank and Charles Menches from Akron, Ohio, who now operate a small chain called, not surprisingly, Menches Bros., and claim that their great-grandfather Charles and his brother Frank invented the dish while travelling in a concession circuit at fairs, race meetings, and farmers’ picnics in the Midwest.
According to family legend, the brothers originally sold sausages but ran out and were forced to use ground beef, which at the time was considered déclassé. Faced with nothing to sell at all, they bought some ground beef, and upon frying it up, found it too bland. They then decided to put coffee, brown sugar, and some other household ingredients in it and cooked up the sandwich. Frank didn’t really know what to call it, so when a gentleman asked him what it was, he looked up and saw the banner for the
Hamburg fair and said, “This is the hamburger.” In Frank’s 1951 obituary in The Los Angeles Times, he is acknowledged as the ”inventor” of the hamburger.
But some say a hamburger really isn’t a hamburger unless it’s on a bun. If so, farmer and restaurateur Oscar Weber Bilby of Tulsa, Oklahoma, deserves credit for serving the first-known “hamburger on a bun” in 1891. According to what’s cooking america Bilby’s burgers were served on Mrs. Bilby’s homemade yeast buns.
From all the research that’s been done, it’s probable that the hamburger sprang up independently in lots of different places around the US. Regardless of where it was invented, most folks agree the hamburger was first popularized in 1904, and historians at McDonalds agree.
That’s when concessionaire Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas, served the hamburger at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Davis spread a mixture of ground mustard and mayonnaise on slices of thick bread and topped the burger with cucumber pickles and a slice of Bermuda onion. It reportedly created quite a sensation, and after the World’s Fair, newspaper reports helped spread the hamburger idea throughout the country.
By the 1920s, the hamburger was available at the quick-service restaurant chain White Castle and the man who gave the hamburger its contemporary look and sought to expand the product’s appeal through chain operations was J. Walter Anderson, a Wichita, Kansas, resident who went on to co-found the White Castle Hamburger system, the oldest continuously running burger chain.
Helped with the marketing savvy of Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, White Castle reached five units by the 1920s, selling a standardised product for five cents. Later White Castle would pioneer the concept of chain marketing with the advertising tag line “Buy ’em by the Sack.”
Another early pioneer in chain development through burgers was the Wimpy Grills chain, launched in 1934, in homage to J. Wellington Wimpy, the chubby, mustachioed cartoon character that hangs around with Popeye, and was famous for saying “I’d Gladly Pay You Tuesday for a Hamburger Today”. Wimpy’s was groundbreaking in two respects: It was the first chain that attempted to court an upscale diner with 10-cent hamburgers, and it was the first to go overseas. But when its founder, Ed Gold, died in 1978, the chain vanished briefly in keeping with a provision in his will that all 1,500 units close. But you can’t keep a good burger down, and Wimpy’s are still with us in England today.
Throughout the 1930s, drive-in hamburger restaurants with carhops on roller skates sprang up, and that was when cheese was first used on hamburgers. In fact, in 1935 a Humpty-Dumpty Drive-In in Denver, Colorado, actually tried to trademark the name “cheeseburger.” And ever since Bob’s Big Boy introduced the first double patty burger, new varieties of burgers have been created. Today people enjoy chicken burgers, veggie burgers and quarter-pound burgers with many different toppings including lettuce,
mushrooms, cheese, onions, tomatoes, ketchup, mustard, pickles, you name it, it’s been put on a burger.
By the 1950s, the hamburger was an American icon. Backyard cookouts were a favourite pastime, but it wasn’t until a milk-shake machine salesman of Czech origin named Ray Kroc met two brothers named McDonald, that the course of burger history would be forever changed and the product would be chiselled right next to mom’s apple pie as an American icon. Maurice and Richard McDonald opened their first self-serve McDonald’s in 1948 in San Bernardino, California – as an alternative to the drive-in outlets – as a
hot-dog and fresh orange-juice stand. Three decades later McDonald’s would rank with General Motors, IBM and Microsoft as symbols of American capitalistic might.
Following up on McDonald’s heels are Burger King, home of the flame-broiled burger, Wendy’s with their signature square patties and Carl’s Jr/Hardees, which, besides having the best burgers on earth, is famous for last year’s Paris Hilton ad campaign (featuring a scantily clad Hilton washing a car in a bikini, introducing the notion that eating large hamburgers is a sign of manliness), and their biggest fast-food burger, the Monster Thickburger, with two meat patties, three slices of cheese, six strips of bacon, 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat, a real man’s meal.
Their large hamburgers are quite popular, you see, because in order to decrease cooking and serving time, other fast food hamburger chains have thinner patties than you’d find in a restaurant. The Carl’s Jr. restaurant chain acknowledged this with the introduction in the US of the “Six Dollar Burger,” featuring a patty the same size as those served by sit-down restaurants, but at a lower price.
Whether char-grilled, flame-broiled, steamed, fried or cooked on both sides at once in double-sided griddles or slathered with ketchup, mayonnaise, cheese or even teriyaki sauce or buried under onions, avocado or mushrooms, the hamburger is to the restaurant industry as wings are to aviation. A century after its debut, the hamburger undoubtedly has maintained its attraction. In fact, by some sources, it is the number one food item in the world, with 60% of all sandwiches eaten being hamburgers!
Gourmet Burger Restaurants in New York City
Gourmet hamburgers are notches above fast food burgers with their nondescript and sometimes unidentifiable meat, soggy bun, limp lettuce and unripe tomato. Gourmet hamburgers use freshly ground round or sirloin, grilled to a sizzling crust on the outside while still juicy on the inside. Toppings are seemingly endless. And where else would you find gourmet hamburger restaurants except New York City?
Tiny but Tasty
Tucked away in the corner of the Le Parker Meridien Hotel, The Burger Joint serves up grilled-to-order burgers. The restaurant is tiny with a limited menu — just burgers and fries. That focus means the burgers have to be the best. Top yours with good old fashioned ketchup, mustard and mayo or keep it pristine so the full flavor of the meat comes through.
The Shake Shack started in New York City and has branched out to other locations. The original Shake Shack looks like it was lifted from a 1950’s Elvis movie. You almost expect to see poodle skirts and bobby socks. While the vibe is retro the burgers are definitely updated. Seating is outside surrounding the shack. The other option is takeout. The Black Angus beef is all natural. Try the ShackBurger topped with American Cheese, tomato and lettuce. Beer and wine is served as are soft drinks, ice cream, fries and hotdogs.
If you think of a hamburger as a fast, filling and reasonably priced lunch you might want to think again. The Wall Street Burger Shop has what they say is the most expensive hamburger in the world at $175, 2011 prices. Kobe beef burgers bring the hamburger to whole other level, both taste wise and wallet wise. The burger served at The Wall Street Burger Shop is Kobe beef stuffed with black truffles, lots of black truffles, foie gras and garnished with gold leaf. It’s only served during truffle season so don’t expect to find it on the everyday all-day menu. Regular burgers start at $4 at the counter.
Second Most Expensive
Not to be outdone, Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne serves the second most expensive burger. The db burger royale is a modest $75 without shaved black truffles, $150 with black truffles as of 2011. If that’s still out of your price range, try the original db burger stuffed with the meat of braised short ribs, served on a toasted bun and a side of fries. It’s touts a much budget friendlier price tag of $32.
Burgers go Glam
New York doesn’t want for restaurants and that goes for gourmet hamburger joints. Try Pop Burger, a classy sophisticated burger joint, with burgers at $12. Fries and onion rings are extra. Burgers are served at the counter and in the lounge area, along with a full dinner menu.
How to Make Hamburgers From Ground Beef
If you want to satisfy your family’s craving for this popular food without the rapidly rising costs and minus the additives you should try making your burgers at home.The process is simple and quick and the result is a juicy, flavorful burger that can stand alone,or stand up to the additions of your favorite toppings like, lettuce, tomato, cheese, onion, bacon or whatever else you desire.
You will need
- 1 to 2 pounds ground beef – You may choose a variety with a low percentage of fat if you like such as a ground round but some fat content will give you a better tasting burger.
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup bread crumbs, soft and finely crumbled
- 2 teaspoons steak sauce
- 1 to 2 packets of onion soup mix OR if you are limiting salt in your diet use one medium onion chopped finely, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon garlic powder
Mix the eggs, crumb, steak sauce, and onion soup packet or onions and seasonings into the meat mixture until the bread crumbs are fully incorporated. Form into patties. Keep in mind that each patty will shrink by about 1/4 when cooked so make them a little larger than the bread or bun you plan to serve them on.
Cook the burgers on a medium hot grill, turning once until done, depending on how you prefer your burgers. I would suggest you always cook the burger to at least a medium-well( a slightly pink,warm, center).
Cook in a pan on the stove over a medium heat.Turning only once. You could also bake them on a rack in the oven.
Serve with your favorite garnishes such as lettuce, tomato, pickles,onions, mayo, and so on. Your options are limited only by your tastes and imagination.
While the trusty hamburger is the all time favorite, you can use this basic recipe to make larger hamburger steaks that you serve with vegetables, potatoes and a fork, or you can serve with a gravy. Unlike those fast food burgers, as good as they may be, the hamburger you make at home has no added artificial ingredients and you can control the amount of salt you add.
We now know that salt is one of the ingredients we eat that lead to heart problems and high blood pressure. We should be looking for ways to eliminate salt wherever we can. An added bonus is the cost savings you will see by making your burgers at home. A typical meal for four at a popular hamburger restaurant can run about $30 on average. If you choose the ‘meal deals’ the bill can be even more. I ran through a local fast food place the other day for a fruit smoothie drink and the first thing I heard over the driver through intercom was, ‘Can I interest you in our $10.95 meal deal of…’What? How is that a deal. We are talking burgers and fries folks. Get real!
Make the burgers yourself at home and even with all the fixings you can easily feed a family of four for under twenty bucks.Add some oven baked and seasoned fries and a side of baked beans and you have a summer party menu any time of the year. Put the savings in the gas tank,or treat yourselves to a carton or two of good ice cream for dessert.And remember,nothing can replace the love that is captured in that meat when it is made with your own two hands.