History of the Hamburger
How Would You Like Your Meat? "Raw" or "Flat and Raw"?
Food historians have been arguing about who ate the first hamburger for centuries and this article will not claim to know the answer but there is enough evidence to suggest that even those building the Pyramids enjoyed a ground meat lunch as they pondered how they were going to move that shaped rock that distance.
The ancient Egyptians enjoyed numerous foods, including bread but there is no evidence that any of these Royal Pyramid workers, with their daily meat allowance (a perk of working on royal tombs - let's face it, they died at the end of the project!) deemed it necessary to place their meat allowance inside of two pieces of their emmer wheat loaf.
Ghengis Khan And The 'Mongol' Hamburger
So for many centuries the Egyptians and others in the East took their beef, goat or lamb raw.
Basically it was chopped up and eaten with whatever other food was to hand.
Ghengis Khan, ruler of the Mongol army, perhaps one of the greatest army of cavalrymen in history made sure his men were well fed. Ghengis was not known for hanging around - this meat was truly the first 'fast food'.
In the 13th century, his men placed meat wrapped in cloth beneath their saddles so that it was readily available when they were hungry and very easy to carry.
Their saddles had acted as meat tenderisers. Each canter and gallop of the horse aiding the pummelling of buttock against saddle - the meat patty was super-flat, easier to eat and very tender.
So far, so Atkins Diet!
East Meets West - The First Imported Hamburger
The Mongols next leader Kubulai Khan invaded Russia in 1238, bringing their new saddle tenderised meat to the palates of an unsuspecting Russian populace.
Thankfully, and maybe because they were too scared to do otherwise, the Russians started to make their own tenderised meat patties.
The area that the Mongols invaded became, eventually, Tartarstan and the tenderised raw meat, originally created under Mongol saddles became known as Meat Tartar.
In time, German sailors from Hamburg visited port and delighted with the delicious meat tartar took the idea back home with them to Hamburg.
Over time, they added their own herbs and spices and the former meat tartar made its way over to the USA, made by German Hamburg-born immigrants.
"I'm really hungry - can I have bread with mine?"
By the 18th century, Germany had some of the biggest ports in Europe and many of the sailors partook of the 'Hamburg steak' in the port of Hamburg.
In time, in US ports, traders would make their own versions of these Hamburg steaks to sell to German sailors in port.
Not a bun in sight! But the clever burger sellers had already started to mix in seasoning, onion and breadcrumbs to 'bulk' up the meat and make it go further - early signs of capitalism in action!
So who DID invent the American version of the Hamburger - the one we all know and love? Seasoned beef, chargrilled sandwiched between 2 halves of a soft white bun, with cheese, salad and pickle?
Here are the main contenders - none has yet been definitively chosen as THE inventor of the hamburger so they all must share the honour of possibly creating the first one in the USA.
Hamburger 'Inventors' Hall Of Fame
- Fletcher Davis - As early as 1880, Fletcher Davis was selling the humble hamburger at his cafe in Athens, Texas. It is rumoured that he took this creation of cooked meat patty in two slices of bread to the Worlds Fair in St Louis in 1904.
Food historian, Frank X Tolbert, a Texan with a love of Texan food (especially chili) made the claim about Davis in his column in the Dallas Morning News based on his own research but in a country the size of the USA, can anyone really prove that Fletcher Davis made the 1st hamburger?
- Menches Brothers - Frank and Charles Menches from Hamburg, New York created the hamburger from meat patties when they ran out of sausages at their restaurant. The brothers then demonstrated their new creation at the Erie Fair in 1885.
- Charlie Nagreen - Charlie Nagreen was selling meatballs at his stall in Seymour, Wisconsin when he realised that people wanted the meatballs to be cooked faster and started to squash them flat in order to chargrill them more quickly. Nagreen remains a legend in Seymour, honoured with his own rather modernist statue. He was also selling them at a 'fair' - a pattern sems to be emerging about 'mass production'. He also served the patty between slices of bread.
- Oscar Bilby seems to be the first American to serve the meat patty in a bun. He had his own stall at a Fourth of July Party at his farm in 1891. His wife's freshly baked buns provided a much better substitute for basic bread slices. So is Tulsa the real home of the hamburger?
- Louis' Lunch, a small road truck in New Haven, Connecticut created a flat meat patty which was broiled on a vertical cast iron stove. The Library of Congress has suggested that this was the first hamburger as we know it today - broiled or chargrilled meat patty on a bun with 'fixings'.
History of the Hamburger - Weighing Up The Evidence
So who wins the coveted award of inventor of the first hamburger?
I would suggest that they all do. Isn't food production or process an organic skill? Which of us has not tried over the years to create the ultimate hamburger when entertaining guests at a barbecue?
Didn't we all start with a generic idea of what a hamburger should be?
Based on our own favourites from McDonalds, Wendy's, etc?
And maybe we even visited Amazon and bought a Hamburger press and created our own burgers from scratch.
So the history of the hamburger is one filled with conjecture, rumour, interesting European and Asian genesis (thanks heavens they didn't stick with the saddle tenderiser), maritime export, early entrepreneurial skills and finally succulent, tender, tasty mass production.
And the next time you sit down to one of these mass produced, or home produced beefy treats, consider this - to get it to you the way you really like it took eight hundred years! And far from being an 'American' food, the humble hamburger is perhaps, one of the most cosmopolitan of foods?
I write this as the UK and other European countries find themselves in the grip of a scandal - horse meat has been found in kebabs, lasagne, processed minced beef and hamburgers.
Ironic that the first 'hamburger' also started with the help of a horse!
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