The History of the Hamburger

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When you look into the history of hamburgers in the U.S., you'll find sources proclaiming the inventor to be (from left) Louis Lassen, "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen, or the Menches Brothers.

20050806Mongols.jpgThe history of the hamburger is truly a story that has been run through the meat grinder. Some sources say it began with the Mongols, who stashed raw beef under their saddles as they waged their campaign to conquer the known world. After time spent sandwiched between the asses of man and beast, the beef became tender enough to eat raw—certainly a boon to swift-moving riders not keen to dismount.

It is said, then, that the Mongols, under Kublai Khan later brought it to Russia, which turned it into the dish we know as steak tartare.

Several years later, as global trade picked up, seafarers brought this idea back to the port city of Hamburg, Germany, where the Deutschvolk decided to mold it into a steak shape and add heat to the equation, making something that, outside of Hamburg, was referred to as "Hamburg steak."

Of course, as it's been pointed out on the comments on this site and in John T. Edge's book Hamburgers & Fries, that's wishful thinking. As Mr. Edge writes, "The history of proletarian dishes like hamburgers is rarely explained by a linear progression of events."

But enough fishing in European and Asian waters; let's cut bait here. Somehow ground beef gets to America. Somehow it's put on a bun. But by whom? Surely the historical record becomes more clear once we cross to these shores.

It doesn't. There are currently three major claims staked on the confusing and contradictory map of American hamburger history. Each has its adherents and detractors. They are:

Louis' Lunch: This New Haven, Connecticut, burger joint claims to have invented our favorite lunchtime (and dinnertime) meal in 1900. From its website: "One day in the year 1900 a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment's owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sen the customer on his way, so the story goes, with America's first hamburger."

"Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen: It's said that he started selling meatballs at the age of 15 at the summer fair in Seymour, Wisconsin. But, homeofthehamburger.org says, "Charlie was a resourceful young man with an outgoing personality. After not experiencing much success selling the meatballs, he had an idea and located some bread. He realized people could take this meal with them if he simply smashed the meat together between two pieces of bread. He called it a "hamburger" and yes, in 1885 the burger was born at the fair in Seymour, Wisconsin."

Menches Brothers: The brothers' descendents, who now operate a small chain in Ohio called, not surprisingly, Menches Bros. claim that their great-grandfather and his brother (Charles and Frank, respectively) invented the dish at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, New York. The brothers originally sold sausages but ran out and were forced to use ground beef, which at the time was considered declassé. John Menches, in a Businessweek story, says, "Faced with nothing to sell at all, they fried [the ground beef] up, but it was too bland. My grandfather decided to put coffee, brown sugar, and some other household ingredients in it and cooked up the sandwich. My great-uncle Frank served the first sandwich, a gentleman tasted it and said, 'What do you call it?' Uncle 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.' "

So who invented the hamburger? Take your pick. We're too ground down at this point to choose.

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