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A hamburger is a grilled patty of ground beef served with lettuce, onions and a mountain of french fries. This is the staple diet of many college students whose culinary skills are limited to pouring ketchup on their fries, or nine-to-five people who simply have no time to cook. The hamburger was probably the most well-known of all fast food during the era of the drive-in and diners. At that time hamburger restaurants were portrayed as warm, homely places where close-knit families went together to eat.
And yet centuries ago, beef came as steak and buns were bread, and the notion of grinding up meat and sticking it inside a loaf was unheard of. How did the hamburger become round and acquire a bun and chips? What were the humble beginnings of today's most popular fast food?
Where the Hamburger Came From
The history of hamburgers is somewhat hazy and debatable since there is no clear documentation to chronicle its origin. However, many claim that the first hamburger 'patty' was born in medieval times when the Tartars (a band of Mongolian and Turkish warriors) placed pieces of beef under their saddles1. The meat, tenderised when the warriors rode, would then be eaten raw, oblivious of the dangers of food poisoning.
The ancestor of the modern hamburger arrived at American shores in the 19th Century when German immigrants brought with them a dish called Hamburg style beef, which, in turn, had been brought to Hamburg from Russia some time around the 14th Century. It was in America that this raw, chopped piece of beef would evolve over time to become the succulent patty sandwiched in a bun that we call a hamburger.
Now, it has been established that the development of the hamburger took place in America around the turn of the last century, but there is great dispute over what happened after the German patty arrived in America.
Among the chief claims are:
Wisconsin claims that it is the 'Home of the Hamburger', and that the first modern hamburger was made by Charles Nagreen in 1885. According to this claim, Nagreen, at the age of 15, started a meatball business at the Outagamie County Fair, but his business was a flop because meatballs were hard to handle when one was strolling around. Inspiration struck, and Nagreen flattened the meatballs, stuck them between a couple of slices of bread, and named it a 'hamburger'. The innovation apparently turned the business around, because Nagreen's County Fair hamburger business continued yearly until his death in 1951. Today, Wisconsin boasts a Hamburger Hall of Fame, and holds an annual burger festival in August, with events including 'the world's largest hamburger parade'. This record is held by a hamburger weighing 5,520 pounds which was served in the 1989 burger fest, and remains unchallenged to this day.
Another possible origin of the hamburger is traced to Frank and Charles Menches of Stark County, Ohio. In 1885 Frank and Charles travelled a circuit of fairs, selling sausage patty sandwiches at fairs, meetings and picnics. Legend says that while selling sandwiches at the Erie Country (Hamburg, New York) fair, the brothers ran out of pork one day when butchers found it too hot and humid for slaughtering pigs. Undaunted, the brothers simply substituted the sausage patty with ground beef, and named it 'hamburger' after Hamburg, New York, where the fair was being held.
Another claim dates the history of the modern hamburger to 1890 when Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut, served the first 'burger' at his New Haven luncheonette, Louis' Lunch, when he ground up some beef and served it in the form of a sandwich to a customer who had to eat on the run2.
In a departure from the trend of claims that the hamburger was born in America, we find that a restaurant cook in Hamburg, Germany, named Otto Kuasw was making his own hamburgers in 1891. This was a thin patty of ground beef sausage fried in batter and sandwiched between two slices of lightly buttered bread along with a fried egg. This sandwich, known as Deutsches beefsteak, was the favourite snack of sailors who stopped at the Hamburg port. It is said that the sailors brought tales of this famous hamburger to America in 1894 when they visited the port of New York and told restaurateurs there about Kuasw's sandwiches. Needless to say, the restaurant chefs began making these hamburgers for the sailors.
The most popular story of the hamburger is that of the 1904 St Louis World Fair. It is the belief of most Texans that the credit for the first hamburger goes to Fletch 'Old Dave' Davis from Athens, Texas, who decided to try something new for once. Taking raw hamburger steak, he grilled it to a crisp brown, and then sandwiched the patty between two thick slices of home-made toast and added a thick slice of raw onion on top. Patrons loved the new sandwich and word spread like wildfire, causing Old Dave to open a hamburger concession stand (at the urging of family and friends) at The Pike, at the St Louis World Fair Louisiana Purchase Exhibition that year. He is also credited as the inventor of french fries, selling fried potato strips along with his hamburgers at the world fair, an idea given to him by a friend in Paris, Texas. Unfortunately, the reporter covering the story mistook Old Dave's friend's homeland for Paris, France, and so the potato strips were henceforth known as 'french fries'.
However, the evidence for most of these claims is shaky and although Old Dave3 is most likely to be the inventor of the modern hamburger, the truth is that we will probably never really know for sure.
White Castle and the Commercialisation of Hamburgers
At the turn of the last century, despite Old Dave's success in St Louis, the hamburger was looked down upon by the majority of Americans as low grade meat likely to be richer with E coli than nutrients. Pork was the number one household meat; hamburger patties were struggling on the bottom rung along with two-day-old shrimp.
The tables turned in 1921 with the birth of the first White Castle Hamburger joint in Wichita, Kansas. It was a business venture between Edgar Waldo 'Billy' Ingram and hamburger bun inventor J Walter Anderson4, confidently promoting the idea that hamburger meat was both clean and safe by moving the kitchen from its hiding place at the back of the shop to the front, in full view of the patrons so that they could see how fresh the raw beef was. The shop boasted fresh raw hamburger delivered twice a day and an experiment that showed that hamburger had nutritional value5.
Ingram pushed White Castle's potential to the limit, reaching out to families through coupons in daily newspapers, and selling the tiny hamburgers for five cents each. Later, it was discovered that adding holes to the patties helped the beef cook more evenly, and that was how White Castle hamburger patties came to have five holes. Ingram patented this, as well as the first fast food paper hat.
'I'll Pay You Tuesday for a Hamburger Today' - the Hamburger Gains Popularity
The 1930s ushered in the Wimpy Burger, named after a character in Popeye, (a cartoon first seen in the late 1920s) who had a curious penchant for hamburgers, and an even more curious way of settling his hamburger debts. By the end of the decade, White Castle imitators had sprung up all over the place, introducing variations to the hamburger, including Bob's Big Boy double patty burger. The cheeseburger was invented by Rite Spot steakhouse proprietor Lionel Clark Sternberger in 1924 when he experimentally layered a slice of cheese on a hamburger at his father's short-order shop in Pasadena, California; the word 'cheeseburger' was patented two decades later by Louis Ballast of Colorado.
By the 1940s and 1950s, activities involving cars were quite the rage in the United States. Songs were written about the joys of cruising in T-Birds and drive-in theatres were the spot for romancing couples. It was therefore of no surprise that the drive-through restaurant became an integral part of this car culture, allowing diners to eat in the comfort of their car instead of a harshly lit booth. Hamburgers, readily flipped onto a grill and easily cooked, were a must on the menu, delivered to the cars by spunky roller-skating young women.
The first In-N-Out Burger drive-through was founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948 in Baldwin Park. In that drive-through era, it was tradition for carhops to take orders and serve those ordering food for their cars. Harry Snyder changed all this with his vision of a drive-through where customers could order through a two-way speaker box, thus increasing service efficiency. Their philosophy was: 'Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.' Although many In-N-Out restaurants today have acquired indoor and outdoor seating, their tradition of serving fresh to order food (no microwaves or freezers; fries made of real diced potatoes, and milkshakes from real ice-cream) remains today.
In the advent of drive-ins, Jack in the Box made its first appearance in 1951, serving hamburgers to motorists in San Diego for 18 cents while a large jack-in-the-box clown loomed overhead. Burger King went from a Miami hamburger, milkshake and soda joint in 1954 to a leader in the fast food industry in over 58 countries worldwide. A&W, despite being famous mostly for its creamy root beer, also joined the hamburger business after founder Roy Allen retired and sold the business to Gene Hurtz in 1950, becoming one of the few nationally established drive-in restaurant chains.
Meanwhile, White Castle suffered greatly when World War II erupted. Part of this was due to the rationing of sugar and beef; Ingram did nothing to help his business by adamantly refusing to hire women or black workers. Although much later he relented to both, his obstinacy where TV advertising, suburban expansion, franchising and french fries were concerned had cost Ingram his lead in the hamburger business. This was because two fast food competitors had aggressively pushed their way up to the top, where they remain today.
The Fall of White Castle and the Rise of McDonald's
Ironically, the competitor that would eventually knock White Castle off the top spot started out as a hot dog stand. The McDonald's revolution began in San Bernardino, California, in 1948 when brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald turned their barbecue restaurant into a drive-in specialising in hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries and shakes. Six years into the hamburger business, they formed a partnership with Roy Kroc, who wasted no time in franchising and creating the McDonald's empire of today.
The first McDonald's restaurant opened in Des Plaines, Illinois in 1955, that same year the McDonald's Corporation was formed; by 1959, there were 100 restaurants in America. But its success did not stop there. Two years later Kroc bought over the McDonald's concept from the McDonald brothers for a total of US$2.7 million; another two years after that, McDonald's had sold its first billion hamburgers and had opened its 500th restaurant. This was the year Ronald McDonald the clown first made his appearance. McDonald's started its spread around the globe in 1967 with restaurants opening in Canada and Puerto Rico and the first McDonald's at sea would be opened in 1993 on board the Silja Europa, the world's largest ferry, sailing between Stockholm and Helsinki.
Where the Hamburger Stands Today
To this day, McDonald's holds the top spot as the most famous hamburger restaurant chain. That is not to say, however, that there have not been other determined hamburger chains arising over the last few decades to become almost as well established in shopping malls. In-N-Out Burger restaurants are still around. Burger King, Jack in the Box and A&W are all big names in the industry. And there are many, many more such hamburger stands and restaurants all over the world.
But today's consumer society is a much more health-conscious one, and more aware of the hazards of food poisoning. The practice of feeding livestock antibiotics, supposedly to promote growth through reduction of intestinal inflammation due to infection, has cultivated antibiotic-resistant bacteria that remain in all but the most thoroughly cooked meat. Every year E coli food poisoning6 has been associated with improperly cooked hamburgers more than with any other food made with beef. Mad Cow Disease, the bovine equivalent of Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (caused by prions) caused a scare in the mid-to-late 1990s and has put many off their beef, even now.
To solve the food poisoning crisis, health organisations have been advising people to cook their hamburger patties thoroughly7 in order to kill off all bacteria. Alternatives such as chicken and fish burgers, as well as the vegetarian soya burger have also sprung up, and are now almost as famous as conventional hamburgers - and in some cases, a great deal healthier, too.
But a chicken burger or a fish burger just isn't the same as a succulent beef burger. Whatever their nutritional value, nothing can replace the experience of having a fat, succulent hamburger patty sitting between two bun slices. It will be a long time before the importance of hamburgers in our lives is completely surpassed by other, and perhaps healthier, alternatives.
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D Leonhardt, 1997. Ground beef, sweat and tears
PB Mitchell, 2002. Burger business FoodNotes @ FoodHistory.com
G Patton, Legacy of original McDonald's: Will it survive being sold? The San Bernardino County Sun, 24 May, 1998
D Riches, 2002. The history of hamburgers Barbecues and grilling with Derrick Riches
L Stradley, 2002. History and legends of hamburgers