We recently took a weekend trip to Hamburg Germany and it started us wondering where did hamburgers originate and who invented the hamburger? We all know that it’s a dish that was made popular in the United States. But where did it all begin?
I’m going to start off by straight up defining what is a hamburger according to the dictionary. So here goes…..
Definition of hamburger by merriam-webster.com
1a: ground beef
b: a patty of ground beef
2: a sandwich consisting of a patty of hamburger in a split typically round bun
So the question I’m posing is – do you really have to have the bun to call it a hamburger?
Personally, I think so, but this topic is so hotly debated (especially in the United States) there are opinions flying about all over the place. Everyone agrees that the Hamburger came about around the early 20th century-ish, So what I thought we should do is take it back to the very beginning and take a look at the entire timeline starting with the main ingredient that makes a hamburger, a hamburger – minced beef.
History Of The Hamburger Podcast
- How American Is The Hamburger? We discuss the origin or ground (minced) meat & meat patties
- The creation of first custom buns designed specifically to be used for hamburgers.
- Also, the battle over who really invented the modern hamburger – The stories and legends of the main contenders.
- Plus, Random hamburger facts and records that amused us.
The Below Content is a detailed companion to the podcast – not a transcript
Where Did Hamburgers Originate – Who Invented The Hamburger?
History of Minced beef…..but a hamburger is so much more
-1st Century AD: Rome The first stirrings of what came to resemble a hamburger. They often served a ground- (minced-) meat dish which contained pine nuts, pepper, and flavorings of wine and garum.
-1200’s Mongol horsemen would stash raw meat under their saddles while wreaking havoc across Asia. It’s said that most Mongolian soldiers spent up to seven days at a time in their saddles so after a time the pounded meat is tender enough for the cavalry to eat raw.
Interestingly enough another document I read stated that early chroniclers saw Mongol horsemen putting thin slices of raw meat beneath their saddles, but that meat was meant to help heal the horses’ sores rather than fill the men’s stomachs. They also go on to say that the meat would have been horse meat and so full of sweat, dust, mud and god knows what else it would have been entirely inedible by the end of the day….
If you are happy to continue with the Mongolian tale…which I am as it’s a pretty cool story, in 1238 Genghis Khan’s grandson, Khubilai Khan invaded Moscow, and they naturally brought their unique form of ground meat with them. The Russians loooved it and adopted it into their own cuisine with the name “Steak Tartare”.
Now, do you actually know where the name Steak Tartare comes from? Turns out Tartars is the Russian name for the nomadic Mongols. Historically, the term “Tatars” was applied to anyone originating from the Northern and Central Asian areas that were then known as the Tartary, which was dominated by various mostly Turco-Mongol semi-nomadic empires and kingdoms.
No matter how raw minced meat came to be a fashionable dish – it did, and by the 1600’s ships from the German port of Hamburg, began calling on Russian ports and doing as people do, exchanging foods, spices, clothes etc. During this period the Russian steak tartare was brought back to Germany and called “tartare steak.”
Somewhere between the 1600’s and 1800’s someone in Hamburg found a way of salting and smoking the meat so that it wouldn’t go off so quickly…as many did in those days. And by 1802 we have our first entry in the Oxford English Dictionary that includes a ‘Hamburg steak’ – which is a slab of salted, minced beef that is slightly smoked and mixed with onions and bread crumbs.
By the 1840’s/50’s immigrants from Hamburg were relocating to America on the Hamburg-America Line, and were documented eating minced, salted beefsteak during their journey. Once in America, the dish became known as the Hamburg steak….and grows in popularity in the US
Many people also suggest that the Hamburg steak that was introduced to America was not only served salted and smoked but once the immigrants arrived and could cook properly again they did just that..but this dish is more commonly known as the Frikadeller in Germany.
Where Did Hamburgers Originate – Who Invented The Hamburger? continued….
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Somewhere between 1885 to 1904 the creation of the hamburger happened. The person who actually created it’s hotly contended and there are quite a few states that fight over this title to this day! So let’s take a look at the long list of contenders…
One thing to note is that most of the following stories on the history of the hamburgers were told after the fact and are based on the recollections of family members. For many American people, which story or legend you believe probably depends on where you are from.
Let the Battle BEGIN!!!!
I’m going to do this in chronological order…..first let’s meet Charlie Nagreen
It is said that, in 1885, Charlie Nagreen then only 15 years old, was having very little success at selling meatballs at a county fair, as no one wanted to get their hands messy. He decided to flatten the meatball and put them between two pieces of bread to make it easier for the meatballs to be eaten on the move. They were a hit and he not only earned the name “Hamburger Charlie” but he returned to sell hamburgers at the fair every year until his death in 1951. He also quite liked to entertain people with guitar and mouth organ and his jingle:
“Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers hot; onions in the middle, pickle on top. Makes your lips go flippity flop.”
The town of Seymour, Wisconsin is so certain about this claim that they even have a Hamburger Hall of Fame that they built as a tribute to Charlie Nagreen and the legacy he left behind. The town claims to be “Home of the Hamburger” and holds an annual Burger Festival on the first Saturday of August each year.
Frank and Charles Menches
The Menches Brothers claim to have invented the dish at a county fair in Hamburg, New York also in 1885. As the story goes, the brothers ran out of pork for their sausage patty sandwiches and cooked up a minced beef sandwich instead from a nearby butcher. They flavoured the meat with coffee and brown sugar, and some other spices and served it between 2 slices of bread.
So the implication here is that the name of the hamburger comes from Hamburg, New York not Hamburg Germany. According to family legend, Frank didn’t really know what to call it, so he looked up and saw the banner for the Hamburg fair and said, “This is the hamburger.” And apparently, the rest is history….
I found one article that stated that Frank Menches’s obituary in The New York Times states that these events took place at the 1892 Summit County Fair in Akron, Ohio – NOT Hamburg NY. Admittedly I didn’t go searching for Frank Menches obituary, so who knows what’s true.
Oscar Weber Bilby
The family of Oscar Weber Bilby claim the first-known hamburger on a bun was served on July 4, 1891 on Grandpa Oscar’s farm. The bun was a yeast bun.
The story has been passed down through the generations like a family Bible. In 1891 Bilby takes a chunk of iron and makes himself a”big ol’ grill” . On the 4th of July, he built a fire, took some Angus meat and cooked it up. The meat was served in Grandma Fanny’s homemade yeast buns and fed to neighbours and friends. who loved this new creation. This meal was so popular they served it every 4th July to all the hungry hoards – but never commercially.
In 1995, Governor Frank Keating proclaimed that the first true hamburger on a bun was created and consumed in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1891, calling Tulsa, “The Real Birthplace of the Hamburger.
Louis Lassen was a Danish immigrant and owner of Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. He served steak sandwiches to local factory workers and not wanting to waste any leftover meat he ground beef trimmings and served them between toasted slices of bread in 1895 or perhaps 1900. The interesting point here is that the Frikadeller is also a popular dish in Denmark too. In fact, the origin of the Frikadeller is unknown if it originated in Denmark or Germany.
A New York magazine stated that “The dish actually had no name until some rowdy sailors from Hamburg named the meat on a bun after themselves years later”, ……but there is zero evidence that this story is actually true.
But the simple fact is that he used toasted bread and some critics like Josh Ozersky, who was a food editor for New York Magazine and author of the book The Hamburger: A History, claims that this sandwich was not a hamburger because the bread was toasted and not on a bun.
Louis’ Lunch is still selling their hamburgers in New Haven. The sandwich is grilled vertically in antique gas grills and still served between pieces of toast rather than a bun, and they refuse to provide mustard or ketchup.
Bert W. Gray
Bert W. Gray takes no serious credit for having invented the hamburger but he does claim to being the “daddy” of the hamburger industry. Gray’s hamburger business all started in the early 1900s when Gray operated a little cafe on the east side of Clarinda’s Courthouse Square.
Grey claims that he knew a German guy who ran the local butcher shop and when he was making bologna one day Grey asked him if he thought ground meat would make a good sandwich filling? The butcher took some ground beef and mixed it with an egg batter and fried it – and nobody wanted it. So they changed the egg batter and added flour instead to hold it together and it was a huge hit!
The sandwiches became increasingly popular and they decided they needed to name their new dish, the German butcher happened to be from Hamburg so that’s what they decided to call it – the Hamburger.
Gray would apparently buy buns from the local bakery to serve his hamburgers on along with chopped onions, catsup and mustard. (sounds like a proper hamburger to me)
Fletcher Davis is the man credited with bringing his hamburger stall to the 1904 St Louis World’s fair where Hamburgers were first recognised and found national fame.
The story is that in 1904, Davis and his wife Ciddy ran a sandwich stand at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Now we do 100% know that the Hamburger gained national recognition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair when the New York Tribune referred to the hamburger as “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike” which was a wide mile-long span of the fair that showcased all sorts of amusements and activities.
BUT and there is a BIG BUT here…..There is no Fletcher Davis selling Hamburgers on the official concessionaire’s list or on the final financial balance sheet of the LPE Co., and the company certainly would not have let anyone just show up and claim “squatter’s rights.” Sadly the NY Tribune never mentioned a particular vendor so we have no real idea who they were talking about.
All they have leading them to Davis is a large photograph of the pike at the 1904 fair with “Old Dave’s Hamburger Stand” provided by Athens Texas resident and multimillionaire sportsman who founded the Dallas Cowboys Clint Murchison. Murchinson said that his grandfather had strong memories of the same sandwich from a cafe back in Texas in the late 1880s but remembered the innovator only as “Old Dave.”
Many years passed and it wasn’t until further investigation by Frank X. Tolbert, a former newspaper columnist of the Dallas Morning News in 1983 that uncovered that “Old Dave” was apparently Fletcher Davis from Athens Texas.
He said “It took me years of sweat neck research before I finally determined, at least in mine and in some other Texas historian’s estimation, that Fletcher Davis (1864-1940), also known as “Old Dave” of Athens, Texas, invented the hamburger sandwich.”
But if Fletcher Davis indeed invented these burgers back in late 1880’s that means….he was only in his 20’s at the time he invented the Hamburger and having a name like “Old Dave” seems a tad peculiar don’t you think. But who knows with nicknames.
Many people take this research as evidence that yes “Old Dave” aka Fletcher Davis did invent the hamburger and that’s the end of it! But there are a few flaws in the story.
Gary Cartwright of the Texas monthly wanted to look into the claims a bit more as Clint Murchison is a notorious prankster. These claims came from a guy who one hot Dallas summer, while a friend was away vacationing on someone’s yacht, had a crew dismantle the friend’s garden wall and hoist a 24-foot cruiser into his swimming pool. Does this make him the most reliable of sources??? Better double check!
So Cartwright spoke to Davis’s family directly in 2009 who claim that YES Fletcher Davis is Old Dave and he invented the hamburger BUT Davis was actually a potter by trade, not a cafe owner this is why his name wasn’t on the official vendors’ list. They do have vendor’s tickets issued to Fletcher Davis for the 1904 Fair that identified him as “a pottery turner” representing W. S. Ceramics Co. But nothing about hamburgers.
STILL the family insists that “Uncle Fletch” had used his ceramics pass to get in the door, but that he had travelled to St. Louis with the express intention of selling his hamburger sandwich on the midway.
Also on top of that, the family agrees that there’s no account of him cooking hamburgers until he married their Aunt Ciddy, in 1896. That means there’s no evidence of him cooking until years after the date that he was supposed to have opened his cafe that Clint Murchison (the pranksters) grandfather used to apparently frequent and recognised at the fair.
ALSO After the fair closed, apparently Uncle Fletch went back to his trade of firing pots and never grilled another burger except at family picnics and company parties.
I don’t know about you – but it seems like a pretty tall tale.
What we do know:
in 1916 Walter Anderson, a fry cook from Kansas, invented a bun especially to accommodate the hamburger patties. The dough he selected was heavier than ordinary bread dough, and he formed it into small, square shapes that were just big enough for one of his hamburgers. Five years later he co-founded White Castle with Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram and the world’s first burger chain was born with standardised burgers.
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There are a lot of people and places that fiercely claim that they created the very first Hamburger but there is also the simple fact that it is entirely possible that more than one person came up with the idea at the same time in different parts of the country. Immigrants were coming over from Hamburg and bringing their meat patties with them. It’s no major leap to decide to put them between some bread to make it easier to eat and add some condiments to make it more than just eating a pile of meat.
I personally have to say that in my opinion, a hamburger is a meat patty that is on a bun so my official vote is going to Oscar Weber Bilby and Bert W. Gray just simply because a beef patty between toasted sliced bread does not make a hamburger….just a beef sandwich.
Fun Facts about the Hamburger
- World War I the hamburger started to lose its popularity due to its ties with Germany and they tried to rebrand the unpatriotic ‘hamburger’ as a ‘liberty sandwich’. They also tried to rename Sauerkraut as ‘Liberty cabbage’ and German Measles as ‘Liberty Measles.’
- According to the daily meal. the most expensive burger on Earth is worth $5000. It’s served at chef Hubert Keller’s restaurant Fleur inside the Mandalay Bay Casino. a wagyu beef patty is topped with foie gras and truffle. If that doesn’t sound like it’s worth $5,000, well, it isn’t, until you get your bottle of 1995 Chateau Petrus, one of the world’s most prized wines, to wash it down with – so it’s the wine, not the burger!!!
- According to Guinness, the actual most expensive hamburger is from a New York City restaurant called Serendipity 3 which in 2012 unveiled the world’s most expensive hamburger, Le Burger Extravagant. Le Burger Extravagant sells for $295.00 (£186.52). Made from white truffle butter-infused Japanese Wagyu beef, the burger is topped with James Montgomery cheddar cheese, black truffles and a fried quail egg. It is served on a gold-dusted Campagna roll spread with white truffle butter, and the roll is topped with a blini, creme fraiche and caviar.
- Guinness World Record the most calorific burger in the entire world – Quadruple Bypass Burger. It is 9,982 calories!
- 2009 PETA offered Hamburg, New York, $15,000 worth of non-meat patties to change the town’s name to Veggieburg. Hamburg declined.