From Mongols to McDonald's: A History of the Humble Hamburger

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Photo credit: Magone/istockphoto

When biting into a juicy burger, most people likely don't realize that the history of this seemingly simple meal spans multiple continents and can be traced back almost a thousand years. Much like the United States, the country with which it's inextricably linked, the humble hamburger is a product of myriad cultural influences, entrepreneurial ingenuity, creativity born of necessity, and a disputed origin story. To give you a greater appreciation for the next one you order — and fun facts to share with friends — we dug deep into the fascinating backstory of the burger.

Road Trip Snack for Mongols?

Genghis Khan might not spring to mind when ordering a Quarter Pounder with a side of fries, but the ruthless Mongol leader may have helped pave the way for the hamburger in the early 13th century. Khan's massive army of horsemen, known as the "Golden Horde," was a fast-moving cavalry that often traveled for days without getting off their horses. Like anyone on a lengthy journey, they needed something convenient they could eat with one hand along the way.

According to some historians, riders would often keep thin cuts of meat between their saddle and horse. It was not only a handy storage space but also tenderized tough cuts as the horde rode across the Great Eurasian Steppe. The meat was typically eaten raw, as the area was mostly devoid of trees for wood to burn. Some assert that the raw cuts wouldn't have been fit for human consumption and instead were used to heal wounds on the horses. But the saddle snack certainly makes for a compelling story.

Steak Two Ways

Around 1238, the Mongols expanded into modern-day Russia, and many say it was here that the raw meat was minced and later refined with ingredients such as raw egg, onion, and various spices, although this claim is also up for debate. The Tartars — Turkic nomads who became part of the Mongolian forces — were associated with the preparation (at least as far as many Europeans were concerned), which is where we got the term "steak tartare." As trade increased across the Baltic Sea to Western Europe, some historians believe that sailors brought the popular steak tartare to northern Germany.

The port city of Hamburg, Germany, became identified with the preparation known as the Hamburg steak around the late 18th century. While some accounts suggest it was ground beef, according to the authoritative "Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cookbook" from 1884, it was thinly pounded; cooked with salt, pepper, butter, and onions; folded over; and flattened again — in other words, a hamburger minus the mince and bun.

As Hamburg was often the last port of call before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, some believe that German sailors and migrants brought the concept of the Hamburg steak with them to America. The dish began appearing on menus in U.S. cities throughout the 19th century, at restaurants including the legendary Delmonico's in New York, as well as eateries in Boston and Chicago.

Early Claims to Fame

A notable innovation called the Universal Meat Chopper — which today we might call a meat grinder — may have played a major role in the emergence of the burger as we know it. Patented in 1897, it became hugely popular around the same time as numerous claims to the invention of the hamburger. Determining which of these claims has merit is no easy feat. Each has become a point of pride for the region the respective inventor called home, and naturally the details are a bit fuzzy and romanticized.

One claimant is Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin. In 1885, at the age of 15, he was peddling meatballs from a ox-drawn cart at the Outagamie County Fair and supposedly had a flash of genius. Realizing that meatballs might not be the most convenient snack to eat while walking around the fairgrounds, he squashed them flat between two slices of bread and dubbed his creation the "hamburger," inspired by the Hamburg steak enjoyed by the region's German immigrants. "Hamburger Charlie" continued to sell burgers at the fair every year until his death in 1951. He was known for attracting customers by playing a guitar and harmonica while singing a catchy jingle: "Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers hot; onions in the middle, pickle on top. Makes your lips go flippity flop."

The town takes immense pride in Nagreen's story, calling itself "Home of the Hamburger" and hosting an annual burger festival every August. It features a hamburger-eating contest, a giant ketchup slide, a "bun run" for kids, and a 190-pound giant hamburger.

Brothers Frank and Charles Menches from Akron, Ohio, are also credited with inventing the hamburger — also, incidentally, in 1885. According to their family, the brothers created the classic while traveling to fairs throughout the country selling their popular hot sausage patties. At the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York, the story goes, the brothers ran out of pork. As the weather was hot, local butchers weren't inclined to slaughter pigs, so the brothers were forced to buy beef instead.

At the time, ground beef was regarded as taboo in high society — only for the underclass — so the Menches worried the meat wouldn't sell at the fair, an upscale, white-glove event. Disappointed by its bland flavor, they added coffee, brown sugar, and other spices; put the beef patty between two slices of bread; and suddenly had a hit on their hands. Asked what they called their creation, the brothers reportedly looked to the sign for the Hamburg fair and dubbed it the "hamburger."

The family dug up an old recipe in 1991 and opened Menches Bros. Restaurant a few years later, serving 50 burger variations. The city of Akron has hosted the National Hamburger Fest for the past 12 summers (although it's taking this year off). In 2006, the festival included a mock trial to determine who really invented the hamburger. In an unexpected twist, Hamburger Charlie won an online vote.

Burger Meets Bun

While previous hamburger "inventors" used two slices of bread, some argue that it's not really a burger without a bun. Oklahoma's Oscar Weber Bilby is credited with being the first to put ground beef on a bun, which may give him a more legitimate claim than those previous ground-meat-sandwich peddlers.

The story goes that, in 1891, Bilby was inspired to build an iron grill over a fire of hickory wood and grill ground beef for the Fourth of July. He served the juicy patties on his wife Fanny's homemade yeast buns, and the neighbors, friends, and family members gathering on his farm outside Tulsa seemed to grow more numerous each year.

In 1933, Bilby and his son Leo opened Weber's Superior Root Beer Stand in Tulsa, where they cooked burgers on that original grill (this time with natural gas) and served them with homemade root beer. The restaurant is still operating to this day, and the state of Oklahoma touts Tulsa as "The Real Birthplace of the Hamburger." All that said, there isn't a whole lot of evidence to back up Bilby's claim, other than the grill and the family's story.

Other Origin Stories

It is said that Louis Lassen served a hurried customer a grilled blend of steak trimmings between two slices of bread at his famed establishment Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900. According to Louis loyalists, that` is when the hamburger was invented. The famous sandwich is still served at the iconic American eatery, cooked on the same vertically aligned cast iron grills popular in the 1890s. Cheese, tomato, and onions are the only acceptable garnishes — don't even think of asking for ketchup and mustard. A common order, in "Louis' Lingo," is "cheese works, salad, and a birch" which translates to a cheeseburger sandwich with all the toppings, a side of potato salad, and the restaurant's popular birch beer soda.

Folks in Athens, Texas, claim that the hamburger sandwich was invented by a local known as Uncle Fletch. Fletcher Davis brought his creation to the public during the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Some say a reporter from the New York Tribune pronounced the "new" sandwich "the innovation of a food vendor on the pike" (the midway of concessions and entertainment), but a thorough investigation showed that no such report exists in the paper's archives. What's more, Fletcher Davis wasn't listed among the fair's concessioners. Nonetheless, Athens still claims to be the "Original Home of the Hamburger Sandwich."

The First Fast Food

As of the early 20th century, the newfangled hamburger was typically found only at state fairs, lunch counters, and street carts — places many Americans considered unsavory and unsafe. Then in 1921, Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram, a former insurance agent, and J. Walter Anderson, who owned several popular burger stands, opened the first White Castle, in Wichita, Kansas, with just $700.

Determined to change the oft-maligned image of the burger, the pair created a gleaming restaurant of white porcelain and stainless steel, where the food was cooked in full view of customers to prove it was safe. Fresh meat was delivered twice daily, ground, shaped into slider-size patties, and cooked in large batches on top of thinly sliced onions. A pickle and bun completed the burgers. The Henry Ford-like assembly-line cooking process is largely credited with establishing the streamlined uniformity of fast food as we know it.

White Castle expanded in the following decades, spawned countless imitators, and helped pave the way for regional burger chains all over the country, as well as the national favorites everyone knows. The first In-N-Out Burger was opened by caterer Harry Snyder and his wife, Esther, in 1948 in Baldwin Park, California. That same year and not far away, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened McDonald's Famous Hamburgers in San Bernardino, California. The first Insta-Burger King — now known as Burger King — opened in Miami in 1954.

Don't Forget the Cheese

To many fans, a burger would be nothing without cheese. Much like the birth of the burger, the origin of the cheeseburger is shrouded in lore. One of the earliest claims comes from Pasadena, California, where a teenage short-order cook — appropriately named Lionel Clark Sternberger — allegedly experimented with putting slices of cheese on hamburgers at his father's roadside stand, the Rite Spot, sometime between 1923 and 1926.

Another claim to the original cheeseburger title comes from Kaelin's in Louisville, Kentucky (now 80/20 at Kaelin's), which purportedly invented it in 1934. In Denver, the now-closed Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In is credited on an engraved slab of granite with creating the cheeseburger in 1935 and reportedly tried to trademark the creation.

So the next time you order up a burger, topped with whatever array of toppings you prefer, you can chow down knowing the long heritage of this historical icon.

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