We love hamburgers. America consumes 50 billion of them a year, and the rest of the developed world isn't far behind. But did you know that the origins of the humble burger are lost to history? We are not sure exactly when, or exactly where, someone put a flat circle of beef into a bun and called it lunch. And we definitely don't know who, although we have a few candidates.
The key ingredient of any burger is the pattie; originally always made out of beef, now available in an infinite variety of ingredients, and preparations. And it is here, that we begin our investigation into the hamburger itself.
Hamburg is a medium sized port in the north of Germany, on the Elbe River. This location makes the city open to outside influences; it is a busy trading centre, and close to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Somewhere in the mid 18th century, we are not sure precisely when, bustling Hamburg saw the arrival of a new culinary concept; diced beef steak, mixed with egg, onion and spices, formed into flattened disks and fried.
Some people think the dish arrived in Hamburg via English sailors, while some say Russian butchers are responsible. Both countries had dishes that were similar, and would have sent many citizens to Hamburg to trade, and so either seems a likely candidate. But wherever the recipe originated, it quickly caught on in the city, and then spread to the rest of Germany. Served with roast vegetables, or salad, or even just the local favourite sauerkraut, 'Hamburg Steak' became established as a staple part of the German diet.
In the Victorian era, Germany exported the idea to the world.
As the 19th century unfolded, waves of immigrants fanned out from Europe, looking for fresh opportunity elsewhere. Many of these headed for America, then still establishing itself as a world power. Hard working, diligent and socially conservative, German migrants that settled in the United States found they fit in well, and many of them prospered.
They brought their cultural traditions with them, and the Hamburg Steak had a beach head in a vast new market. The first recorded reference is from the 1870s:
'A 'Hamburg Steak' is simply a beef-steak, redeemed from its original roughness by being mashed into mincemeat, and then formed into a conglomerated mass, and fried.'
- The New York Times, 1873.
Cheap, easy to prepare, and tasty, the dish caught on quickly again. By the 1880s, Hamburg Steaks were well established on the east coast of America, and could be found on the menu of most diners and cafes.
But, something strange was happening to the name; it had somehow gone from 'Hamburg', to 'Hamburger':
'Those flat, brown, meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg Steaks; the people call them 'Hamburgers.' They are made from raw meat chopped up with onions, and spices, and are very good.'
- The New York Sun, 1883.
No one really knows why, beyond people's natural inclination to play with words.
So now we have the hamburger pattie in America in the 1880s; it looks and tastes much like it does today, and is widely consumed. But something is still missing; the hamburger is still something that you sit down and eat on a plate, with a knife and fork and a side dish.
The hamburger needs to go mobile. It needs to become a sandwich. And how it did, is a point of some contention.
Our first contender is Charlie Nagreen, AKA 'Hamburger Charlie.'
Born into a poor family in Hortonville, Wisconsin in 1870, young Charlie left school at an early age, and set to making a living with a mobile lunch cart. He used a small gas grill to heat and serve meatballs, and was undoubtedly familiar with Hamburg Steaks, as Wisconsin had a substantial German ex-pat population.
In October 1885, Charlie used a team of oxen to drag his lunch cart 20 miles to the nearby town of Seymour, hoping to do some business at their first annual town fair. But while the fair was busy, and full of potential customers, there was a problem; everyone wanted a snack they could take with them while they wandered around, which didn't suit the meatballs Charlie was selling.
So the resourceful young entrepreneur hit on an ingenious solution. He bought a few loaves of bread from a sandwich stand at the fair, flattened his meatballs into patties, and served them between two slices. His new creation proved so popular that Charlie soon made them his primary product, and sold them at fairs all across Wisconsin, from where they gained national renown.
But while Hamburger Charlie was a real man, and he did run a portable snack stand that sold hamburgers at county fairs for more than sixty years, the origin story outlined above is almost certainly false. While the claim is repeated on numerous websites, including Wikipedia, no tangible evidence has ever been produced to confirm that Charlie was even at the Seymour State Fair in 1885, let alone selling hamburgers there.
Frank and Robert Mench also operated a travelling snack stand, selling sliced pork sandwiches at fairs and public events. In either 1885, or 1892 (different tellings have different dates) the brothers set up shop at the county fair in Akon, Ohio, and would later claim to have invented the hamburger there.
Having run out of pork due to unexpectedly high demand, the brothers tried to source more meat from a local butcher. But the popularity of the fair meant that supplies were short, and all the Mench's could get their hands on was five pounds of ground beef.
They used this to prepare a batch of Hamburg Steaks, also well known by this time in Ohio. To serve them, they employed the remainder of their sandwich making supplies; bread, and salad, with a ground beef pattie in between. Again, the hamburger appeared to have been invented.
But the problem with this story, plausible though it sounds, is the same as Hamburger Charlie; there is simply no evidence that it ever happened. While the Mench's ran a mobile sandwich stand, that later became a bricks-and-mortar shop, there are no newspaper reports of them serving hamburgers in 1885 or 1892, and no mention of them having invented hamburgers until much later.
As a footnote, in the modern era 'Mench Bros' is a small goods company, that specialises in frozen hamburger patties.
Fletcher 'Old Dave' Davis ran a small diner on Henderson Square, in the Texas city of Athens, just outside of Dallas. Sometime between 1896 and 1900 (accounts vary), Davis came up with a version of the hamburger; a ground beef patty, served between two slices of thick, crusty bread called Texas Toast. While Davis did not call his sandwich a 'hamburger' it was a popular and well known local lunch item, and several local residents have left behind first had accounts of eating it at his restaurant.
Davis' sandwich was so popular, in fact, that he was invited to the World's Fair in St Louis in 1904, where he cooked them in the food hall. The wide audience at such a large event, and the favourable response the sandwich received, meant that many visitors took the idea back home with them, allowing hamburgers to quickly established themselves across America.
But while there is evidence to support this story, the problem with Old Dave's claim is more a matter of timing; 1896, or 1900, or 1904, is too late a date for the invention of the modern hamburger.
In 1893, the Evening Gazette in Reno, Nevada, carried an article that made specific mention of 'hamburger steak sandwiches' that were sold in a local cafe. And by the following year, the Los Angeles Times had a description of the same thing being sold by street vendors in LA. The casual nature of both of these references indicates that hamburgers - hand held, between two pieces of bread - were already well known in both places by this time.
Which brings us back to the beginning.
While we know something of how the world's favourite item of junk food came together, we will probably never know who, precisely, was the first person to put it all together. But, whoever that person was, we all owe them a debt of thanks.