The History of the Hamburger

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Close your eyes and picture a hamburger. Whether the version in your imagination was bursting with lettuce, tomatoes and onions and oozing ketchup or not, it’s a sure bet that the picture included a bun. Without a bun it’s not a hamburger, just a hamburger patty, or what used to be known as a “Hamburger steak” or “Hamburg steak." Oh, and happy National Hamburger Day!

The Proto-hamburger, from Sausage to “Steak”

Exactly how a dish named for a German city evolved into one of America’s favorite foods is a riddle wrapped in a mystery on a sesame seed bun. The earliest reference to the ancestor of the hamburger appears in an English cookbook from 1763. Hannah Glasse in Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy tells how to make a Hamburg sausage. She mixes minced beef with suet, spices, wine, and rum and stuffs it into a gut, which is then smoked and dried. Except for the last steps converting it into a sausage, the minced meat and fat with spices could be a Hamburg steak. Strange as it seems, according to Mark H. Zanger’s article on Hamburg steaks in the online reference Daily Life Through History, in Germany, Hamburg never had a special association with chopped meat.

The first glimpse of Hamburg steak in Google Books is less than savory. According to the public documents of Massachusetts for 1835, “There were 689 samples of meat products examined during the year, of which 19 samples of Hamburg steak and 71 samples of sausages were adulterated.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines Hamburg steak as “a dish composed of flat balls of meat like fillets, made of chopped lean beef, mixed with beaten eggs, chopped onions and seasoning, and fried.” The oldest quotation the editors found is from the Boston Journal for 1884. Across the country in San Francisco, a menu from the Clipper Restaurant dated 1871 to 1884 lists Hamburg beefsteak for 10 cents, the same price as stewed mutton, tripe or salmon. A tenderloin steak was 20 cents. 

Getting Warmer: The Hamburger Sandwich 

Who turned a Hamburger steak into “the hamburger” by placing it on a bun? Zigzagging across the country again, we find many contenders. According to the Library of Congress, Louis’ Lunch Wagon in New Haven, Conn., served the first hamburgers in 1895. But their hamburger sandwiches were served between slices of bread. Close, but not the real deal.

There are more tantalizing hints. The Tombstone [Ariz.] Prospector for September 5, 1896 reported that the residents of Bisbee rejoiced at the arrival of a lunch wagon offering pies, hot “tomales,” hamburger sandwiches and other delicacies, “fully guaranteed to be free from all bad effects in the way of nightmares, indigestion, etc.” In 1902, a member of the Delta Sigma Delta fraternity described sampling the offerings at the Indiana State Fair: “I ate a hamburger sandwich, carefully eliminating the gravel and other foreign substances as I came to them,” but didn’t reveal whether the sandwich was on bread or a bun.  

According to an oft-repeated story, Fletcher Davis, a fry cook from the tiny town of Athens, Texas, popularized the hamburger sandwich at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Josh Ozersky in The Hamburger: A History, however, claims Frank X. Tolbert, the late columnist for the Dallas Morning News, concocted the story as well as the nonexistent New York Tribune article he used to back it up.   

Bun, Bun, Who’s Got the Bun? 

A 1911 restaurant-trade book, The Lunch Room calls for two slices of bread for a hamburger sandwich, but also says, about sandwiches in general, “In some localities the round bun sandwich is very popular.” Who can tell where those localities might be? In all likelihood, many a burger was borne on a bun unseen, to waste its perfume in some forgotten lunchroom. 

But in 1916, another fry cook, Walter Anderson of Wichita, Kan., developed a dense bun with a crisp crust especially to hold up to the juiciest hamburger. Ta-da! The quintessential hamburger was born. By 1920 he owned three hamburger stands and he teamed with an investor to expand the business. They designed buildings in the form of castles and painted them bright white to emphasize their devotion to cleanliness.  Sorry, Mickey D, Wendy, Wimpy and all the anonymous lunch wagon proprietors and family picnickers. At least for now, a founder of White Castle holds the title of inventor of the hamburger.

Now, fire up that grill and enjoy a juicy burger on a toasted bun.

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May 28, 2014 - 12:00pm
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