During National Hamburger Month, May of every year, it’s only natural to wonder about the origins of America’s favorite sandwich. Who is the true inventor? From what country or state did the very first hamburgers emigrate to our U.S. restaurant tables and backyard grills? We can faithfully report that there are almost as many claims of inventorship as there are hamburger styles, which of course comprise every variation from Kobe beef to vegetarian meat substitutes to salmon to the popular 80/20 ground beef.
The name “hamburger” derives, of course, from the city of Hamburg, Germany. Some residents of Hamburg were headed as far west as the eastern shores of the United States during the 18th century. Many of them brought a snack called the “Hamburgh sausage.” This snack, like its cousin the “Rundstück warm,” combined a meatball similar to the Swedish meatball with a slice of bread for utensil-free handling. We’ll give you a bonus bit of trivia for your first barbecue this spring: the words “wiener” and “frankfurter” also derive from the names of German cities, Vienna and Frankfurt, respectively. (Remember that German W’s sound like V’s.)
History of National Hamburger Month
As far as credit for the transformation of the European meat sandwiches into the sesame-seed bun, wide patty, condiment and leaf-laden burger we know today? You might as well draw a name out of a hat. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll tell you that among the first to serve American hamburgers were the owners of the first White Castle restaurants, who in turn spread the story of the burger’s invention by a chef named Otto Kuase (whose sandwich included a fried egg on top of the patty; the egg was later omitted).
The other main component to remember about the hamburger’s origin is its presence at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. At that event, burgers were served and became popular enough to become a de facto exhibit of their own. Writing up the Fair, the “New York Tribune” called the new hamburger “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike,” the word ‘pike’ meaning the fair’s midway, a mile-long span that showcased numerous amusements and activities. History has (fairly certainly) revealed the vendor in question to be the late Fletcher Davis. Counterclaims have been made in print and oral histories, but we accept them as more variables in the swirling mists of time that have irrevocably obscured the hamburger’s precise birth circumstances.
But hey, we don’t have to be historians to eat our favorite food, right?