The storied history of the hamburger
, our favorite national snack, is a bit hard to chart in a linear fashion. There’s many opposing stories put forward from different groups, all eager to claim stake for the creation of the legendary meat sandwich. In order to understand the true origins of the hamburger, we need to chart its history across many different places and moments in time.
Mongolians and Germans
Certain sources chart the early origins of hamburgers to the military campaigns waged by the Mongols, who would carry raw beef under their saddles - which eventually became tenderized from the travel. The Mongols would bring this style of food to Russia, where it became the precursor to the raw dish known today as steak tartare.
Eventually, sea bound travelers brought this dish to Hamburg, Germany, where the local people changed the shape of the dish to resemble more of a steak, and started cooking it - making it known as Hamburg steak.
But then everything changed once the burgers hit the buns.
American Beginnings of the Hamburger
There’s many contradictory threads of stories detailing how hamburgers first emerged in America. While there’s endless amounts of claims made, food historians have seemed to center on three in particular.
Charlie ‘Hamburger’ Nagreen
Charlie Nagreen began selling meatballs as a young teenager at a Summer fair in Seymour, Wisconsin in 1885 - but when this venture didn’t lead to much success, he decided to start selling the meatballs squished between two pieces of bread. He was said to coin the term ‘hamburger’, and it’s all history from there.
Louis’ Lunch, a burger place in New Haven, Connecticut claims to have invented the hamburger in the year 1900. Then, Louis Lassen, the proprietor of the business, quickly made a broiled beef patty sandwich when a customer came in asking for a quick meal they could eat on the go. This rushed meal became America’s first improvised hamburger - or at least, this is what Louis’ Lunch claims.
The descendants of these brothers who operate an Ohio chain insist that their grandfather and his brother invented the Hamburger at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, New York. The brothers are said to have been selling sausages, but quickly ran out, and had to use ground beef. Initially, they attempted frying it, which unfortunately led to a neutral, uninteresting flavor - when Charles Menches decided to add brown sugar, coffee, and a number of other common household ingredients into it and cooked it up. When trying to figure out a name, the brothers looked up at the banner for the local Hamburg fair, and quickly coined the term ‘hamburger.’ Which one of these stories is true, or just legend, is unknown - but history has set hamburgers squarely within America’s culinary folklore as a true cultural relic.