The Surprising History of the Humble Hamburger

The hamburger origin story takes a long path over oceans and across continents to become the beloved sandwich we know and eat by the billions today.

As McDonald’s signs famously boast, “billions served.” Ray Kroc instinctively knew in 1955 that Americans love their hamburgers, and our love affair has only grown over the decades. According to the USDA, Americans consume nearly 50 billion hamburgers a year; that’s an average of 2.4 hamburgers per day, per American. It’s the staple of our backyard barbecues, it’s served in half-pound sizes at comfort food eateries across the U.S., and it’s one of the most iconic and versatile foods we consume.

Just think of all the ways you can make a burger: with ground beef, bison, pork, turkey, or chicken; or with beans or lentils, and increasingly, plant-based alternatives that mimic the taste of beef. And then there are all the toppings that have been introduced beyond the customary lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and bacon—peanut butter, wasabi, a fried egg…It’s endless.

Before we delve into who invented the hamburger, let’s discuss why it’s called a hamburger in the first place, because we can’t answer the first question without the answer to the second.

Why is a hamburger called a hamburger?

The name “hamburger,” as we know it has nothing to do with whether or not it has ham in it. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.) So why do we call it a hamburger, then? Its name can give us a clue to its origins.

People always wonder if the hamburger was first cooked up in Hamburg, Germany—that’s the popular story, anyway. It’s kind of like asking, What’s a hot dog made of? And what is American cheese, exactly? Foods need their origin stories. But about Hamburg? It’s not entirely true, and it’s not entirely false. There would be no hamburger today without Hamburg; that much is true.

George Motz, the author of Hamburger America and director of the documentary of the same name, says it wasn’t a hamburger as we know it today that was created in Hamburg. It was “‘frickadellen,’ or chopped beef,” according to Motz (who The New York Times has called the foremost hamburger authority),” that became known as ‘steak in the style of Hamburg,’ or ‘hamburger steak,’ once it emigrated to the U.S.”

A Hamburg steak is a beef patty served with gravy, onion, and potatoes. “It was considered a delicacy partly due to the scarcity and value of meat at the time,” says Colin M. Caplan, author, historian, professor, and tour operator with Taste of New Haven in New Haven, Connecticut.

Notice the distinct lack of bread? That came much later.

Where did the first hamburger come from?

Turns out that minced meat, cooked in one way or another and served on bread, may have been much older, like BC times older. “The earliest record that we have is from a 1st-century cookbook by Caelius Apicius, which makes mention of a recipe of minced game mixed with nuts and other ingredients, pattied, cooked, and served on bread,” says Motz.

Motz says the history can also be traced to Russian Steak Tartar (no ‘e’), which was popularized by the Tartars of the Northern Steppes of Asia. “That raw mutton dish got around and eventually made its way across the Baltic Sea to the Port of Hamburg, where it’s believed to have been changed to beef and then cooked.”

When was the hamburger invented?

For all intents and purposes, the hamburger was invented in America. Not a surprise there, right? We eat so many burgers and we have popularized the consumption of hamburgers and exported them worldwide. Much evidence points to the genesis of the hamburger as we know it at state fairs across the U.S., but especially in the Midwest, between the years of 1870 and 1890. The fairs were surging in popularity at the same time immigrants, many of them German, were buying farmland.

“The invention of the hamburger happened in multiple places in the Midwest at virtually the same time,” says Motz. “The frankfurter was arguably the most popular portable state fair food and preceded the burger by about ten years. It was only a matter of time before the Hamburg steak made the jump to bread,” he attests. Seems like enterprising vendors at these fairs had their own iteration of this very good idea, the hamburger.

It’s a testament to history and not just a happy accident that hot dogs and hamburgers are often cooked side-by-side.

What was the first hamburger ever made?

Some accounts point the burger’s invention toward the New Haven, Connecticut establishment Louis Lunch, founded by Louis Lassen, who ran a lunch wagon popular for its steak sandwiches.

“In New Haven, we have a longstanding belief that the original hamburger sandwich was invented at Louis’ Lunch in 1900,” Caplan says. The truth is that Louis was not the inventor, “but Louis Lunch appears to be the oldest hamburger stand in the country,” says Motz, noting that records substantiate that the restaurant did serve the hamburger and has remained open for more than 125 years.

To this day, burgers are still made at Louis Lunch the same way as their very first one, which was for a customer who was rushing to catch a train to New York and allegedly asked for it as a sandwich. Until the 1980s, no toppings other than onions were available, but asking for condiments such as ketchup is still, as Caplan puts it, “a recipe for expulsion, even today.”

And what of the cheeseburger?

Which came first, the cheeseburger or hamburger?

This isn’t a chicken or the egg question. You can probably guess the hamburger came first, but it didn’t take long for someone to pop a slice of cheese on it.

“The cheeseburger has been traced to a precursor of Bob’s Big Boy in Southern California, called The Rite Spot. Bob Wian, an employee at the Pasadena burger joint, was the inventor,” says Motz. “I’ve heard a few origin stories, but my favorite is Bob’s claim that sometime in the early 1920s he used a slice of cheese to cover up a burned burger patty.”

Sources:

  • George Motz, director of the documentary, Hamburger America, and author of Hamburger America
  • Colin M. Caplan, author, historian, professor, and tour operator with Taste of New Haven in New Haven, Connecticut

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