Why are hamburgers called hamburgers if they’re not made out of ham? The answer spans time and space from the Mongol invasion of Russia to the German revolutions of 1848 to the McDonald’s Big Mac.
A hamburger and French fries is probably the most American meal you could think of. Let’s consider that for a moment . . . a hamburger, named not for the meat it’s made of but for Hamburg, Germany, and French fries are considered quintessentially American. This is yet another testament to the powerful influences of immigration and cultural exchange that continue to shape the culture of America today.
“Two All-Beef Patties . . .”
There is considerable controversy over the origin of the hamburger. Because ground beef steak and bread have been eaten separately in many different countries for centuries, it is unknown exactly how the hamburger as we know it came to be. For one, there are similar dishes found throughout Europe. Sicia omentata from fourth-century Rome was a baked beef patty mixed with pine kernels, peppercorns, and white wine. Steak tartare had its origins in the twelfth-century Mongol invasion of Russia, when Mongol invaders stashed meat under their saddles to tenderize it while they rode to battle and then ate it raw. Russians called this preparation steak tartare, after their name for the Mongols. When ships from the port of Hamburg came to Russia to trade, they brought back steak tartare as raw ground beef shaped into a patty with a raw egg yolk on top.
A more direct German precursor to the hamburger is the seventeenth-century Frikadeller, which were flat, pan-fried beef meatballs. In eighteenth-century England and America, the Hamburgh sausage was prepared with chopped beef, spices, and wine and was supposedly a recipe that mimicked the preferences of immigrants and visitors from Hamburg. A nineteenth-century adaptation, called the Hamburg steak, is the most recognizably hamburger-like preparation and carried the Hamburg name. It was a minced beef filet, sometimes mixed with onions and bread crumbs, then salted and smoked and served raw in a pan sauce.
In 1848, political revolutions throughout the German Confederation pushed many Germans to immigrate to the United States. Known as the “Forty-Eighters,” these immigrants were just the first of a wave of European immigrants. The 1850s saw a larger increase in the immigrant population in the US relative to the overall population than any other decade in history. The German-born population alone increased 118.6% during this decade as immigrants arrived in New York by boat and spread throughout the East and Midwest states.
And here’s where the controversy comes in. The first version of the hamburger origin story claims that Germans arriving on the Hamburg-America line had already been preparing and consuming the Hamburg steak, as it was a popular meal among workers, and the smoked preparation kept well at sea. Immigrants enjoyed the meal and continued to make Hamburg steaks out of fresh meat once they got to America.
The second version goes that the Hamburg steak was created to meet demand for quick, cheap food for German sailors and immigrants arriving in America. Hamburg was known as an exporter of high-quality beef, so the Hamburg steak was offered in America as an idea of what might appeal to those arriving from Germany. Street vendors opened up along the coast where the Hamburg-America line docked, selling lightly grilled meat patties in the “Hamburg style” as a quick meal, perhaps accompanied with bread.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, following this wave of immigration, the Hamburg steak was found at restaurants all over the port of New York. It was rather expensive at first (a whole 11 cents!), but with the growth in rural beef production and railroad transportation, the cost of beef decreased, and the meal became more widely available. Cookbooks of the time included detailed instructions for preparing the “hamburger steak,” as it was known from 1889 on.
The hamburger steak was soon viewed as a quintessentially American food, influenced as it was by the waves of immigrants who formed the character of the country. As Chicago and other cities in the East developed into major centers for the large-scale processing of beef, the hamburger steak became widely affordable and available to the average consumer—it was the “American beef dream.”
“Special Sauce, Lettuce, Cheese, Pickles, Onions”
By the early 1900s, the term hamburger steak was shortened to simply hamburger. Sometime between 1885 and 1904, someone decided to put the hamburger steak between two slices of bread, thus inventing the hamburger sandwich we know today. Some credit the founder of fast-food joint White Castle as the inventor of the hamburger sandwich, while others cite small-town cooks in Texas or Oklahoma or Ohio who placed a Hamburg steak between two slices of bread. Hamburgers were served on two thick slices of toast at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where they gained major exposure and created a sensation among fair-goers. Various claims exist and are not well-documented, and it’s likely that multiple people had the idea for a hamburger sandwich around the same time.
Toppings soon followed. Onions had long accompanied the hamburger steak, and other vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes were added for a fresher appearance. Ketchup was first commercially produced in 1869 by Henry Heinz and soon became a near-universal condiment for the hamburger.
“. . . On a Sesame-Seed Bun”
Fast-food restaurants played a major role in cementing the hamburger as the all-American meal. White Castle, which opened its doors in 1919, is regarded as one of the first true fast-food restaurants. When Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, published in 1906, caused public outrage and anxiety over the state of meat processing in the country, restaurants had to deal with negative perceptions of products made from ground meat. White Castle took efforts to promote itself as a clean and hygienic facility, and paired this with rapid service and a simple menu centered around hamburgers and coffee.
Like many foods and practices that had their origins in Germany, the hamburger may have lost popularity during World War I due to anti-German sentiment. Additionally, the word “hamburger” conjured up images of greasy, cheap fair food for some consumers. For these reasons, White Castle hamburgers were rebranded as “sliders” to avoid referencing a German city or invoking other unsavory connotations. (Frankfurters received a similar treatment and were called “hot dogs” from then on, and they never quite regained their name.)
But other fast-food companies did not necessarily follow suit, and the term hamburger was still in use during the Great Depression as White Castle’s production methods became faster, more efficient, and more standardized, providing customers with a predictable meal and experience no matter where they were in the country. This concept would revolutionize the world of restaurants as the birth of fast food.
By the 1940s, the term “hamburger” was shortened to “burger,” which became a new combining form—giving us the parts we needed to build words like cheeseburger, veggie burger, and baconburger. Around the same time, McDonald’s came onto the scene, building on White Castle’s system and adding drive-in service. A competing chain called Bob’s Big Boy lays claim to the first documented instance of making a hamburger with the now-standard sesame-seed bun, due to a request from a customer who wanted “something different.” This order also resulted in the first double-decker burger as the chef cut the bun in three pieces to hold two hamburger patties. (Though the sesame seeds used for hamburger buns today have been rendered tasteless, they add visual appeal and cause people to salivate when they see them.)
When the Big Mac was introduced in 1967, all bets were off: McDonald’s was the leader in fast food and the main driver behind the popularity of the American-style hamburger worldwide. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun” was now the established recipe for a premium-quality fast-food hamburger.
Influenced by immigrants and innovation, the hamburger has now became an internationally recognized symbol of American culture and of globalization. Just ask Inspector Closeau:
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