Research: The History of Hamburgers

Tuesday, January 17, 2017
It’s endlessly fascinating how mysterious a lot of food origin stories are. We tend to think of history as “This happened in this place on this date,” but when it comes to who came up with particular foods, drinks, or cooking styles, it seems we run into conflicting information more often than not. Nowadays, the humble American hamburger is practically ubiquitous, so it’s no wonder that a lot of people want the credit for introducing it, even if that credit is purely nominal. All those people are destined for frustration, though, because the history of the hamburger is a complicated tangle. I wanted to take a stab at it, though. Hamburgers are immensely popular, and are often even symbolic of America, but where did they come from?

As with 99.9999% of American foods, the hamburger didn’t really originate in America. Several sources trace them back to the Mongols in the 1200s, who stashed raw beef under their saddles as they rode around pillaging and raping. Supposedly, their butts pressed the meat into a form tender enough to eat raw, and when this tenderized raw meat was introduced to Russia, steak tartare was born. Frankly, this story sounds a little apocryphal, but like I said...complicated tangle. In any event, it’s beyond question that plenty of raw beef was being consumed.

Apparently, it took until the mid 1700s for actual cooking to be applied to these cuts of meat (again – a bit suspicious). Seafaring traders in the port city of Hamburg, Germany brought in a great deal of ground, raw meat, which the locals shaped into steak shapes and cooked. It’s about this time that we finally have some definitive historical evidence, in the form of an English cookbook called The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, which published a recipe for “Hamburg sausage” in 1747. By 1802, the official Oxford dictionary was defining Hamburg steak as a “hard slab of salted, minced beef, often slightly smoked, mixed with onions and bread crumbs.”

This was a time that German immigrants were coming to America in great waves, and they naturally brought this preparation with them. A New York doctor named James H. Salisbury declared in 1867 that this cooked meat was a pretty healthy alternative to consuming raw beef, and the Hamburg steak soon took on his name as Americans embraced it. It was fortuitous timing that home meat grinders also became widely available about this time. The stage was set.

So, where did the modern American hamburger as we know it today come from? Good question! As mentioned above, a lot of people have laid claim to it:

-There’s Fletcher Davis (~1880), who historians believe served hamburgers in Athens, Texas before bringing them to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where they were popularized.

-There are the Menches brothers, Frank and Charles (~1885), that Ohioans claim served hamburgers at the Erie county fair when they ran out of sausage and used ground beef, instead.

-There’s Charlie Nagreen (~1885), who sold meatballs at the Seymour, Wisconsin county fair, and apparently made sandwiches out of them in order to make them easier to eat while walking around.

-There’s Louis’ Lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut (~1895), run by Danish immigrant Louis Lassen, who is officially credited by the Library of Congress as selling the first hamburger.

-There’s Oscar Bilby (~1891), who is believed to have created the first bun specifically created for hamburgers in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A fry cook named Walter Anderson is said to have “discovered” these buns in 1916, and went on to co-found White Castle in 1921.

Whew! What a mess. It seems that without access to a time machine, we’ll never know if the hamburger can be credited to a single source, or if it was independently developed by a whole bunch of people. Happily, though, it doesn’t matter too much. Let’s just be grateful that it happened.