Hamburger History: The Story of America’s Most Iconic Food
Hamburger history is, unsurprisingly, pretty controversial. Throughout the years, many restaurants have claimed to be the originators of America’s iconic meal but, like most things in history, things aren’t so simple. So let’s take a journey from the origins of the patty itself to the contentious fight on who amalgamated the ingredients that make up the hamburger we know today.
The Golden Horde and Steak Tartare
One of the less controversial aspects of hamburger history is the origin of probably the most fundamental part of the burger itself: the patty. The first to develop what would become the standard hamburger patty weas the Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire, led by the one and only Genghis Khan. Because the horde was always on the move, warriors were often unable to stop to eat and a solution was needed. Riders ended up wrapping slices of meat underneath their saddles and letting the motion, pressure and friction pound the meat and heat it to a consumable temperature. This process resulted in a recipe for minced meat that spread throughout the Mongol Empire.
During the time of Kublai Khan, the ever-expanding empire would make their way to Moscow where the Muscovites would adopt the concept and refer to it as steak tartare (The Muscovite word for Mongol is Tartare). With this, the patty had made its way to Europe and a new cuisine was established in the 13th century but soon the German people would take hold of this concept, and make a few big additions.
The Port of Hamburg
The 17th century was possibly the most fundamental time in hamburger history. Minced beef was considered a delicacy all over Europe and red meat itself was often relegated to the upper classes of medieval society. It is at this time the German port of Hamburg began to really take off due to increased trade and with that came an influx of Russian citizens who made Hamburg their home. The Port would go on to be referred to as the “Russian Port” due to the high number of Russian residents; because of this influx steak tartare would suddenly become a staple of the city.
The Port of Hamburg became vital to the European colonization of America in the 19th century and culinary customs would be shared between many people before they made their way to the New World, specifically, New York City. When it comes to the manifestation of the hamburger we know today, however, it is at this point in hamburger history where things get controversial.
The Hamburg Steak in America
Huge numbers of German immigrants were making their way to America in the late 19th century and with this came a desire for a piece of the homeland. The Hamburg steak began to take off as a way of attracting German consumers hungry for something resembling food from home and American chefs were quick to adopt it due to high demand coupled with low ingredient costs. The Hamburg steak was either smoked, fried or roasted and often accompanied with eggs, bread, or onions and is very similar to what we now know was Salisbury steak.
There is actually controversy as to when and where the Hamburg steak was invented but it is generally agreed upon that America is where it really began to take off. Rapid industrialization created a need for a mass-produced, affordable food that could be consumed quickly and made just as fast. The emergence of the working class and the middle class only increased the demand for such a product. This product eventually came but – as stated earlier – hamburger history isn’t so simple and there are several claims on the creation of America’s favorite food. Let’s look at a few!
Fletcher Davis – Texas – Late 1880s
Historian Frank X. Tolbert and many others designate the origin of putting a Hamburg Steak between two slices of bread to Fletcher Davis, a cook in Athens, Texas. “Old Dave” used homemade toast and added a raw onion to his concoction. “Old Dave’s Hamburger Stand” was a staple in Athens and Davis brought his version of the hamburger to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri to the delight of many patrons.
Charlie Nagreen – Wisconsin – 1885
Known locally as “Hamburger Charlie,” Charlie Nagreen began his career in ground beef innovation at the age of fifteen. Charlie made his way to the Outagamie County Fair to sell meatballs from an ox-drawn food stand but was initially very unsuccessful. Attributing his low sales to the difficulty of eating said meatballs, he went about flattening them and added two slices of bread to help with portability.
Hamburg steak was already very popular in the area due to the population of German immigrants in Wisconsin so Charlie found a way to capitalize on the popularity of the product and the familiarity with the name. Wisconsin has a burger festival every year on the first Saturday of August in celebration of his contribution.
The Menches Brothers – New York – 1885
The story goes that Frank and Charles Menches (of Ohio) were running the fair circuit in 1885 and ran out of pork sausages for their sandwich stand in Hamburg, New York. At the suggestion of the local butcher, they substituted the pork with beef, ground it up into patties, mixed it with spices and served it between two slices of bread with ketchup and onions. This resulted in the Hamburger, named after the location of the fair (Frank looked at the banner for the fair and decided it sounded good).
The meal was a hit, and the story of The Menches Brothers has become a legend – though in Frank’s obituary the story takes place at the 1892 Summit County Fair in Akron, Ohio (more controversy).
Oscar Bilby – Oklahoma – 1891
Now, this tidbit of hamburger history actually features the other fundamental part of the burger: The bun. While acknowledging that having a patty between slices of bread was common in Texas at the time, Oscar Weber Bilby decided to change things up a bit. On July 4th, 1891 Oscar threw a party on his farm and decided to test out his wife’s homemade buns. The buns were a huge hit and the recipe took off. With these specially made buns, it can be argued that the first “true” hamburger was served in 1891.
America’s New Staple
Hamburger history, of course, doesn’t end there. Restaurants were made, Franchises established, popularity boomed and then there’s that whole cheese thing. Hamburgers have always been a food for the masses, a way for people on the go to enjoy a hearty meal as they support themselves in the journey of life. Americans have expanded on it in ways not conceivable from its days under a horse saddle roaming across the Mongol Empire.
The burger business is a fundamental example of American ingenuity, and here at George’s Burgers, we’re proud to serve them. So come by and see yourself what hamburger history has served up here in Santa Monica, we’ve moved past the horse saddle! For more hamburger related goodness in text and image form, follow us on Facebook and Instagram!