To the casual observer, the hamburger is a staple of American cuisine. In fact, one might even say that hamburger is closely associated with American culture. But the hamburger – especially the beef patty itself – is actually a global phenomenon that has a history spanning through decades and even centuries.
History of the Hamburger
When we say “global,” we don’t just mean that the hamburger maker has become a global favorite. We’re also referring to its origins, which come from beyond the American shores. Check out the hamburger’s fascinating and rich history here:
Ancient Era to the 1700s
4th century A.D. – A Roman cookbook titled Apicius detailed the preparation of a dish similar to the hamburger. This was named the iscia omentata. This dish consisted of minced beef, pine nuts, white wine, pepper, and a special kind of fish sauce, all formed into a patty.
12th century A.D. – Nomadic Mongol warriors would carry meat under their saddles. The combination of friction and the horse’s body heat helped in tenderizing, mincing and cooking the meat.
As Kublai Khan invaded Moscow, he and his army introduced the raw minced meat to the Russians. The dish became the world’s first “steak tartare,” which was another precursor to the hamburger.
The 1700s – Russian seafarers and merchants introduced the steak tartare to the port of Hamburg, Germany. The Germans, in turn, gave a different spin to the steak tartar by adding more ingredients to the beef patty such as onions and capers. Instead of being served raw, the beef patty was served cooked (either by frying or broiling). It was the world’s first “Hamburg steak.”However, England has also been known to claim ownership of the original Hamburg steak.
1802 – The Oxford English Dictionary added the new entry “Hamburg steak” which was defined as “salt beef.”
1836 – Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York released the first printed menu which included the “hamburger steak.” It was the costliest dish at 10 cents per serving.
1845 – A man named G.A. Coffman from Virginia developed and patented a machine for “cutting sausage-meat,” featuring a rotating blade that worked in a similar fashion to the modern meat grinder.
1885 – A 15-year-old boy named Charles Nagreen sold what could be the first American burger from a food stand at the 1885 Seymour Fair (now Outagamie Country Fair) in Seymour, Wisconsin. He reportedly made patties out of meatballs and put them between two slices of bread. The new dish was easier for the people to eat while strolling through the fair.
1885 – Brothers Frank and Charles Menches claimed that they were the first to invent the hamburger, which they sold at the 1885 Erie Country Fair in New York. Originally, they were selling pork sausage sandwiches, but ran out of pork and later used beef instead.
1891 – Oscar Bilby claimed he invented the first-known modern hamburger – that is, the hamburger served on a bun – in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
1897 – A variant of the Hamburg steak was invented by Dr. James Salisbury (who used to serve as a physician during the Civil War). This now-popular dish is named after him, called the Salisbury steak, which is typically served with brown gravy.
The 1900s – 1920s
1900 – Danish immigrant Louis Lassen, who ran a lunch wagon named Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, is said to have sold the first hamburger in the US.
1904 – A cook from Athens, Texas named Fletcher Davis claimed to have invented the hamburger by putting a beef patty between two slices of bread. His burgers made a national debut at the St. Louis World Fair that same year. This is where the hamburger’s popularity really took off.
1916 – A fry cook named Walt A. Anderson started creating small buns specifically made for the burger patty. Five years later, he went on to co-found the burger chain, White Castle.
1921 – Walt A. Anderson and real estate insurance agent Billy Ingram founded White Castle together in Wichita, Kansas. This chain is known for its small, square hamburgers which are called “sliders.” White Castle is generally regarded as the first burger chain.
1924 – 16-year-old Lionel Sternberger placed a slice of cheese to the burger at his father’s sandwich shop in Pasadena, California. Because of this, he is generally credited with creating the world’s first official cheeseburger.
The 1930s – 1950s
1934 – Illinois-born entrepreneur Gust Belt converted his old establishment – a combination of gas station and chicken restaurant – into a hamburger stand called Steak ‘n Shake. Belt pioneered the concept of serving premium burgers (known as “steakburgers”) and milkshakes.
1935 – The trademark “cheeseburger” was awarded to Louis Ballast who worked for the now-defunct Humpty-Dumpty Drive-In in Denver, Colorado.
1940 – Brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened “McDonald’s Bar-B-Que” in San Bernardino, California. Eight years later, as their burgers sold better than their barbecues, the brothers reorganized their restaurant and changed the menu to focus more on their burgers (which were sold at 15 cents apiece).
1947 – Mr. Fatburger originally started as a little burger shack in Los Angeles, California. Lovie Yancey, one of the restaurant’s co-founders, eventually dropped the word “Mr.” leaving the name Fatburger as we know it today.
1948 – In-N-Out Burger opened its first store in Baldwin Park, California. It pioneered the concept of a drive-through hamburger restaurant, where customers could place their orders by speaking through an intercom.
1950 – Whataburger was founded in Corpus Christi, Texas. Its goal was simple: to “make a better burger that took two hands to hold and tasted so good that when you took a bite you would say ‘What a Burger!’”
1951 – Jack in the Box was founded in San Diego, California. It became the first burger chain to innovate the two-way intercom system in its drive-through services.
1953 – Burger King, famous for its Whopper burger, was born. The first restaurants were then called “Insta-Burger King” because the burgers were cooked in an instant broiler.
1953 – Ex-World War II soldier Troy N. Smith converted his already successful root beer and hamburger stand into a drive-in-only restaurant. Originally named Top Hat, it was renamed Sonic instead when Smith learned that “Top Hat” was already trademarked.
1954 – Milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc teamed up with the McDonalds brothers to start franchising McDonald’s restaurants, with himself being the first franchisee.
1956 – Husband and wife Carl and Margaret Ketcher opened Carl’s Jr., their first full-service restaurant, in Anaheim and Brea, California. They had already run a series of successful hotdog stands since 1941.
1957 – Burger King’s “Whopper” was born. It was created by the restaurant co-founder James McLamore and was sold for 37 cents apiece.
The 1960s – 1980s
1961 – Ray Kroc bought the exclusive business rights from the McDonalds brothers to the tune of $2.7 million.
1961 – McDonald’s opened the Hamburger University which aimed to train personnel in restaurant-management skills.
1967 – McDonald’s signature burger, the Big Mac, was born. It was created by Jim Delligatti, one of the early McDonald’s franchisees. It was sold for 49 cents apiece. A year later, the Big Mac was available in all McDonald’s stores nationwide.
1969 – Entrepreneur Dave Thomas opened his first Wendy’s store in Columbus, Ohio. It was originally named as Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburger.
1971 – McDonald’s had started its global expansion, with several stores opening in Amsterdam, Munich, Sydney, and Tokyo.
1972 – McDonald’s “Quarter Pounder” burger was introduced, created by franchise owner Al Bernardin.
1979 – New York-born businessman Philip J. Romano opened the first Fuddruckers restaurant in San Antonio, Texas.
1984 – McDonald’s sold its 50 billionth hamburger.
1986 – Michelin-starred French chef Daniel Boulud debuted his upscale version of the hamburger – the DB Burger, which was priced at a hefty $32 per serving!
1986 – ‘Five Guys Burgers and Fries’ was founded by couple Jerry and Janie Murrell. It’s famous for its red-and-white checkered restaurants and burgers topped with American cheese and bacon.
1988 – McDonald’s made another historical score as it opened its first store in the communist world – in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia).
The 1990s – 2010s
2005 – Carl’s Jr. launched a (rather controversial) advertising campaign featuring sexy models and celebrities chowing down on burgers.
2009 – Burger King launched an unusual marketing campaign that if you unfriend 10 Facebook friends, you could win a coupon for a free Whopper.
2012 – The biggest commercially available hamburger to date was unveiled by Juicy’s Foods and Ovations Food Services for Juicy’s Outlaw Grill in Corvallis, Oregon. It weighed 352.44 kg (777 lbs). It is still available on the menu. Customers who wish to have this enormous burger should order it 48 hours ahead of time.
2017 – The biggest hamburger yet came all the way from Pilsting, Germany. It weighed 1,164.2 kg (2,566 lb, 9 oz). It took about 300 people to assemble this colossal burger!
Interesting Facts About Hamburgers
Now that we’re more or less caught up on the history of the hamburger, here are some interesting, weird but nevertheless fascinating facts about this delicious invention:
- In America alone, people consume 13 million burgers every year, enough to circle the earth 32 times. No wonder they’re the true burger kings!
- Do you know that a McDonald’s burger doesn’t decompose? It’s not because the burger has chemicals in it, but it was dehydrated in a way that the burger will turn itself into a jerky. You could call it an immortal burger!
- Who says carnivores have all the burger fun? Vegetarians and vegans are still able to enjoy a burger bite, as many restaurants serve delicious vegetarian/vegan burgers that are low in fat but rich in protein and flavor.
- Heart Attack Grill, a burger joint in Las Vegas, is notorious for its outrageously unhealthy burgers. The selection includes their signature Quadruple Bypass Burger – the stuff of cardiologists’ nightmares!
- Have you ever noticed why the burger patties look so perfect in TV commercials and print ads? It’s because they’re undercooked!
- During World War I, US soldiers named the hamburger “liberty sandwich” to avoid any German connection with Hamburg in Germany.
- There’s an actual Hamburger Hall of Fame! You can find it in Seymour, Wisconsin.
- 60% of the sandwiches that are sold around the world are actually hamburgers!
The hamburger is so well-loved in the USA that there are even a handful of unofficial holidays to celebrate it. These are:
- May 28 – National Hamburger Day
- July 28 – Hamburger Day
- September 15 – National Double Cheeseburger Day
- September 18 – National Cheeseburger Day
- December 21 – National Hamburger Day
You might be interested in learning more about hamburgers on your own. Fortunately, there are several books out there which can give you a detailed history of the hamburger, ways to cook delicious hamburgers by yourself, and a guide to some of the best burger joints in America. We’ll touch upon a few of these works here:
Hamburger America: A State-By-State Guide to 200 Great Burger Joints
George Motz is hailed as being among the top hamburger experts in America. With this book, we can learn and benefit from his knowledge about the best burger places in the country. Here, he’s featured and talked about no less than two hundred burger establishments where one can order a perfect burger that’s unique to that region.
Motz has included small diners, college town restaurants, and even roadside stands in his collection of the best burgers one can experience. This book is great for burger lovers as well as frequent travelers. When on a road trip of a vacation within the United States, this book could be quite a useful companion.
Great American Burger Book: How to Make Authentic Regional Hamburgers at Home
Motz isn’t called the Indiana Jones of hamburgers for nothing. Here, he’s branched out his knowledge and given us a wide variety of hamburger styles and their cooking methods. He’s covered steaming, poaching, deep-frying, and smoking burgers along with several other recipes.
Each chapter in this book covered a different regional burger, so you can make a tortilla burger one day and the classic New York style the next. The pictures are a tantalizing treat in themselves as well.
The Hamburger: A History
America has a lot of history tied in with the hamburger, so it’s worth learning about how this mal became such an icon. This history will take us through the journey in some detail, along with a social commentary on American life itself.
If anyone’s interested in food, hamburgers, or the mixing of food and culture, this book will be a great gift for them. With this work, we find out how the burger is entwined into several aspects of American life, including business.
Nowadays we enjoy many variations of the hamburger, such as the Hawaiian burger, rice burger, veggie burger, ramen burger, and even a kimchi burger!
By reading the up on a food as humble as the hamburger, we may better understand how it’s transcended centuries and boundaries to remain popular today. As long as there are people who continue to love (and crave) yummy and juicy hamburgers, they are definitely here to stay.