The hamburger is arguably one of the most beloved and most iconic American foods. In fact, U.S. residents eat an astounding 14 billion burgers each year. But even though you’ve likely enjoyed a number of burgers and shakes in your day, did you ever stop munching to think about where this incredible sandwich actually came from? (We get it — you were probably too busy enjoying the flavor to care about its history. We’ve been there, too.) In today’s post, we’re taking a little trip back in time in order to whet your appetite. Let’s learn about the origins of this simple-yet-delicious staple.
Foods involving cooked beef preparations and bread have existed for literal centuries. Historical records from Marco Polo and Kublai Khan suggest that precursors to the hamburger (such as steak tartare) likely paved the way for the dish we now know and love. In the 1700s, the Hamburgh Sausage appeared in a popular cookbook; the recipe involved minced meat and spices and was typically served on toast. The term “sandwich” was coined during the second half of the 18th century after John Montagu (the fourth Earl of Sandwich) was immortalized for preferring to eat his meals this way to make playing cards easier. In the United States, however, recipes for sandwiches weren’t found in cookbooks until the 1840s.
Later on, in the 19th century, Hamburg steaks began showing up on restaurant menus in New York City — which made sense, as it was the port most frequented by German immigrants, who brought their culinary preferences with them to America. This type of steak really didn’t compare to our contemporary hamburgers though, as they were typically served raw (or nearly raw) and was often accompanied by onions, breadcrumbs, or a raw egg.
America had a long way to go before anyone would see what we now know as authentic hamburgers being served on a menu. And you might be surprised to learn that the invention of the hamburger is actually steeped in controversy. We do know that the hamburger as we know it was invented sometime between 1885 and 1904. Some historians credit a Texas cook for placing a steak between two slices of bread. Others say that a restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut invented it when a customer asked for a quick meal he could take to go and the owner responded by sandwiching a meatball between bread. Still, other accounts say that brothers Frank and Charles Menches accidentally invented the dish when they ran out of their signature sandwiches at the Erie County Fair (also known as the Hamburg Fair) outside of Buffalo, New York. In a moment of quick thinking, they substituted ground beef for their regular ground pork and blended it with coffee and brown sugar. They opted to serve them with ketchup and onions and declared that their new food would be named after the town in which the fair took place.
There are countless other origin stories that all lay claim to invent the burger. But in the end, the important takeaway is that it’s now an integral part of American culture — and it’s a delicious one, at that. Thanks to restaurants like White Castle, McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King, and Wendy’s, hamburgers became available to the masses at virtually any time. And now, you can find some of the best burgers on eateries of every tier across the country.