America in the summertime means a cookout with friends, family and a hot, sizzling grill. What’s on that grill? Hamburgers.
Hamburgers are as American as apple pie or baseball (and go perfectly with either). Like Americans themselves, burgers come in many different shapes and sizes, from the tiniest slider to the largest double or triple bacon cheeseburger.
The modern hamburger actually descends from a cut of steak – the Hamburg Steak, a minced fillet popular in the U.S. in the 19th century. The famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City is frequently cited as having the hamburg steak on its menu by the end of 1800s. The name suggests German origins, specifically the city of Hamburg. The theory that the burger’s ancestor was brought to the United States by German sailors and immigrants is persuasive, but, like so much food lore, ultimately unproven.
It is no clearer who decided to put the steak between two warm toasted buns. No fewer than five different cities claim America’s first hamburger: New Haven, Conn.; Athens, Texas; Seymour, Wis.; Akron, Ohio; and Tulsa, Okla. And they provide conflicting proclamations, plaques and festivals celebrating each city’s particular hamburger hero.
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A diverse cast of characters claims the title of hamburger inventor: Louis Lassen, who opened Louis’ Lunch in New Haven in 1895, is credited with inventing the hamburger (served to this day between two pieces of toast rather than in a bun) five years later. Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis from Texas allegedly sold his burger at the 1904 World’s Fair. “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen from Wisconsin reportedly decided to turn his steak into sandwiches for his customers’ convenience, and the Menches brothers from Ohio supposedly named their sandwiches after Hamburg, N.Y. Oscar Weber Bilby, whose family included one of the governors of Oklahoma, claimed that he served the first hamburger on an actual bun on the 4th of July in the early 1890s. The claim asserts that it was the first because burgers as we know them are served on buns, not bread.
Whether the inventor was one of these people or some other inspired cook, the hamburger, like any other fundamental element of American culture, has origins shrouded in myth and local legend. Whatever its roots, the burger became a national phenomenon.
White Castle, founded in 1921, grew into the first hamburger chain. Known for cleanliness, quick service and, of course, those tiny sliders cooked with grilled onions, the restaurant grew from one outpost in Wichita, Kan., to hundreds of franchises in various regions of the country. Consequently, the popularity of the relatively obscure hamburger began to explode. Then came other chains, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, which in turn spread the hamburger across the globe.
As it spread, the hamburger grew and morphed and found a place in the collective American heart (and diet). Different burgers have evolved into regional specialties, such as the Juicy Lucy from Minnesota, the Slugburger from Mississippi and the Loco Moco from Hawaii. Turkey burgers, bison burgers and veggie burgers are ubiquitous. And you can get kangaroo burgers without going Down Under to Australia; I’ve found them in Baltimore.
Whether you think that the arguments over the creator of the burger represent the American obsession with being first, or that the many varieties of burger symbolize the creativity of the American people (or that the Big Mac Index as a measurement of comparative economics showcases the hunger of economists and writers throughout the world), the hamburger is a permanent fixture in the American story.
Because hamburgers say summer, American Food Roots will serve up a seasonal series on the hamburger, featuring history, regional favorites and the author’s personal burger insights. [First insight: It’s easy to make a good burger, but hard to make a great burger.]