The Hamburger - America's First Fusion Food
How did the all-American hamburger come into being?
The history of the hamburger is not as all-American as it might seem with so many burger places making up the majority of fast food available in America. When you go abroad, it seems that hamburgers are the food that people outside of America most associate with America and everything American.
However, the components of the hamburger, including the beef patty, originate from all over the world and can be traced back for centuries!
The Hamburger Patty
The first beginnings that led to the development of the hamburger patty dates back to a long time before Columbus sailed the seas, long before the pilgrims were feasting on corn and turkey during the first Thanksgiving.
Over 900 years ago, tenderised beef was a delicacy in Russia among the Tartars, a Mongol tribe, who packed beef under their saddles and rode on it until it was soft (it makes you wonder who first originated the idea to do this and why?). Then, they chopped up the beef and ate it raw (steak tartare comes to mind).
Around the 18th century, the Russian style of tenderising and eating beef grew with popularity and was introduced to the German port city of Hamburg by sailors. There, the locals decided the beef would taste better if it were cooked and seasoned. So German chefs added eggs and onion, formed the beef into patties and fried them.
Then, when German immigrants arrived in the USA in the 19th century, they brought the Hamburg style of cooking beef with them. But up until this time, the beef patties were eaten just as patties - not as the popularised sandwich style.
Then, Charlie Nagreen of Wisconsin (owner of the first “fast food” wagon), sandwiched these German delicacies between two layers of a bun since some of his customers complained that the beef patty on its own left their fingers too greasy. Hence, the hamburger, as we know it was born.
“But what about the condiments?” you might ask...
What a Lovely Pickle!
The pickle wins the prize as the oldest, most enduring and most comedic member of the hamburger team with a history dating back to the Tigris Valley, around 2030 BC. It comes with a long history but also a lot of abuse, going through life mostly misunderstood. It has a confused identity as “pickle” is a verb as well as reference to a cucumber or any number of foods that could be soaked and preserved in vinegar or brine.
To be in a “pickle” means to be in a situation, a bad one usually, that you cannot get out of...a jarring experience to be sure! Even Shakespeare referred to the infamous condiment when he wrote in The Tempest “How camest thou in such a pickle?”
Pickles have been loved and adored throughout history – except in Britain where British people, statistically, do not love pickles (or gherkins) on their hamburgers. Yet it is not clear as to why.
And, where did pickles get such a funny name? There is a suggestion that the word originated around the 1400’s from Middle English “to pick at”. Also, there is another suggestion that pickle may be a synonym for brine. Or, perhaps it comes from the sensation that the first person whoever ate one got from the experience: a sour pucker + tickle of the taste buds. Pucker + tickle = Pickle.
Time to Catch Up with Ketchup
The first sauce which would eventually lead to the modern tomato-based ketchup as we know it today was a fish sauce called ke-tsiap. This sauce was invented by the Chinese in the 1690s. British explorers took the sauce back home to England with them. By 1740, the sauce became an English staple item more like Worcestershire sauce than ketchup. By 1790, tomato had been added and, through time, it had become mostly tomato sauce. Thank goodness for that! Otherwise, we would be eating our fries with fish sauce.
Mustard wins the prize for the most international of the hamburger condiments. Records of mustard recipes date back to 42 AD. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the French were primarily responsible for developing and refining mustard preparation techniques.
With its pungent flavour and versatility as both a smooth paste and whole seed, use of the mustard has grown into various forms and associations with the local preparers around the world. Examples are the delicate Dijon mustard of France, the hot English and Chinese mustards, the mild, whole seed mustards of Germany, and many other variations including the yellow and brown mustards in America.
So when you think about it, the hamburger is not really all that American. It could even be considered to be a dish of worldwide influence and, perhaps even, America's first fusion food.