The History of America’s Love Affair with Burgers

There’s no denying the burger is a timeless American staple and national icon – a symbol of patriotism and celebration – Western burgers, Hawaiian style burgers, burgers made of ostrich, you name it, Americans are eating it. But where does the root of all this patriotic culinary inspiration lie? You might just be surprised. In honor of (drum roll please…) National Hamburger Month, we take a look through the hamburger files to see where, when, and who the burger we know and love today came from.


(photo credit: Shoneysknox)

The humble burger has a long and convoluted history.  And I do mean the burger – that succulent meat patty – the stuffing to the Oreo – for the buns we eat burgers with today were not used until the 1900’s.  In fact, we largely have the Mongolians, the Russians, and the Germans to thank for the burger, or meat patty. While Genghis Khan, followed by his “Golden Horde,” conquered two-thirds of the then-known world, they would flatten scraps of lamb or mutton (from the sheep and goats that they traveled with) into patties and place them under their riding saddles.  This allowed the meat to soften and become tenderized, so it would be readily available to eat with one hand, for their was little time the Mongols ever dismounted from their horses.  When the Mongols invaded Russia, the Russians adopted the ground meat patties, and thus, steak tartare was born.  ‘Tartar’ translates to Mongol in Russian.  The raw eggs, onions, and elegance of steak tartare is a result of chefs redefining the dish over time.

During the 1600’s, as Germany and Russia traded with one another, the Russian’s steak tartare made a name for itself in the German port of Hamburg. Now don’t get ahead of yourself… Hamburg (contrary to popular belief) is still not the birthplace of today’s hamburger.  However, Hamburg was famous for its good quality beef which was often minced or chopped and combined with other common herbs.  This “meat-steak” dish came with many Germans who immigrated to America in the 1800’s.  Many of these immigrants began opening restaurants in New York, Chicago, and other large cities.  As chef’s (of several ethnic backgrounds) put their own spin on the meat patties, combining them with garlic and onions to be grilled or fried, they became “Americanized.”  Delmonicos, in New York City, is often cited as having the first and best Hamburg Steak on their menu – just 10 cents! But you best believe it wasn’t cheap.  In fact, it was the most expensive item on the menu.  It wasn’t long before the Hamburg Steak found its way into popular cookbooks.


(photo credit: Foundations of America)

Now it starts to get tricky… As John T. Edge, author of Hamburgers & Fries, puts it, “the history of proletarian dishes like hamburgers is rarely explained by a linear progression of events.”  According to Serious Eats and food writer, Tori Avey, there are four predominant theories that lay claim to inventing the very first American hamburger:

1. The hamburger might have started from a FOOD CART! In the mid 1800’s, many Americans found themselves working industrial jobs.  Food carts would offer coffee and snacks to the factory workers on the night shift.  When these carts started utilizing gas, they were able to grill Hamburg steaks which were very popular, yet posed a problem that still faces eaters of street food today – how the heck to eat it easily while standing or on-the-go.  In order to appease the workers, cart owners started placing the steaks between two slices of bread so the food could be easily eaten with one hand. And the rest is history.

2. Louis’ Lunch –  a burger joint that is still standing in New Haven, Connecticut, thinks it is the original birthplace of the hamburger.  With an official stamp of approval from the Food Network, they think they’ve earned the right to hush naysayers.  Based off of their website, they claim that restaurant owner, Louis Lassen, “hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread” to serve a patron who said he wanted a quick meal he could eat on the run.

3. “Hamburger” Charlie Nagreen, a young man from Wisconsin, is said to have started the hamburger at the Seymour, Wisconsin state fair in 1885.  Being the savvy entrepreneur that he was, Charlie quickly realized that his meatballs were not selling because they were too difficult to eat as attendees walked around the fair.  He smashed his meat into a patty and stuck it between two slices of bread, and viola, the hamburger began its saga.

4.  The Menches Brothers, now known for their small chain in Ohio, rightfully dubbed Menches Bros., say that their great-grandfather and his brother (Charles and Frank) invented the hamburger the same year as Charles Nagreen.  Only it was at the fair in Hamburg, New York. Charles and Frank sold sausages, but ran out the meat they used, and improvised with none other than ground beef.  However, Charles thought that he could spice up the dish with brown sugar and coffee, and placed the new patty between two slices of bread. When asked what he called his creation, he could think of no other name than ‘Hamburger,’ after Hamburg, the very town he was cooking in.

We’ll leave who truly invented the hamburger up to your discretion, but it is undeniably known and greatly touted that Oscar Weber Bilby was the first to make a hamburger served on a bun in 1891.  Thanks to Oscar, Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson opened the first fas food hamburger establishment, White Castle, in Kansas in 1921 (that’s right, it wasn’t McDonalds). After fighting an uphill battle against concern for sanitary practices by the general public, they largely popularized the concept of “fast food,” and of course, the hamburger, launching it into the American icon we know and love today.


(photo credit: flickr source)

Shortly after, hamburgers could be seen as popular menu items at soda shops and diners across the nation. During WWII, soldiers would even bring hamburgers overseas with them to help with home-sickness.  By the end of the war, a swarm of drive-in diners, Wimpy Burger (no longer in existence) and Bob’s Big Boy opened shop and introduced double patty burgers.  It wasn’t until Ray Kroc joined the McDonald’s team in 1954 that the Micky D’s empire made the permanent switch from hot dogs to hamburgers.

Today, hamburgers account for almost 60% of sandwiches eaten. They are also the number one type of sandwich eaten at food trucks where sandwiches are still the most popular entrée item.  BBQ and grilling expert and writer, Derrick Riches, reminds us, “next time you pick up a hamburger, remember it’s not just a sandwich, it’s an economy.”  I would say that’s a pretty strong argument for kids to sway their parents’ dinner plans towards the less-refined.  Despite the recent trend in rising health concerns from parents and mindful eaters, it seems as though hamburgers are “recession-proof” (Burger Industry Analysis 2014 – Costs & Trends).  Affordable, portable, and customizable, burgers have survived a long journey into the hearts and clogged arteries of Americans.