As is customary with any prized food dish, it’s difficult to determine exactly who invented the hamburger and when. There are countless versions of the story, and varied styles of the burger itself. Everyone wants credit, but complete proof is scarce. The most popular assumption is that it originated in Hamburg, Germany – but that’s not necessarily the case. Modern historians have concluded the earliest burger ancestor was actually devised by Mongol horsemen in the 1200s, who stashed raw meat beneath their saddles while riding across Asia. Post-ride, the pounded meat was tender enough to be eaten raw. (Yuck. Desperate times, I guess). Fast forward to the 1840s, when German emigrants sailing on the Hamburg-America Line (a transatlantic shipping enterprise established in Hamburg) ate minced, salted beefsteak and dubbed it “Hamburg steak,” a delicacy which later became mainstream in the U.S.
But this convoluted saga didn’t end once it reached our side of the pond. In 1885, Frank and Charles Menches served a ground-beef sandwich at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York. Naturally, the brothers claimed they invented this hamburger, but so did Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, a 15-year-old kid who made a similar sandwich at the Outagamie County Fair the same year. In 1900, Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, served ground beef cooked on a vertical boiler, sandwiched between two pieces of toast; the Library of Congress officially credits Lassen for selling the first hamburger in the U.S. In 1916, a fry cook named Walter Anderson created the squat bun made especially for hamburgers, and five years after that, he co-founded White Castle, the world’s first burger chain (and the legendary destination of our favorite movie stoners, Harold and Kumar).
More burger chains germinated after that. Burger King opened in 1954 and gave us the Whopper in 1957 and McDonald’s was founded the next year in 1955 (the famed Big Mac arrived in 1967). Wendy’s came along in 1969 (their burger is my favorite, but it doesn’t have a snappy name). A National Institutes of Health report showed that from 1962 until 2006, obesity in American adults aged 20-74 more than doubled. The average adult weighs over 26 pounds more now than they did in the 1950s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The obesity epidemic’s timing lines up suspiciously with the advent of cheap and delicious fast food burgers. But in 2016, we’ve cleverly countered the calories and questionable nutritional content with veggie, turkey and bean burgers. Many people claim these taste as good as a real burger, a starry-eyed notion I find difficult to believe.
At this point, burgers have become a cultural staple in America, beacons of freedom and patriotism. The simple meat-and-bread combo was expanded upon and improved in a thousand different ways, and pop culture has responded to the phenomenon in kind. In “Pulp Fiction,” Samuel L. Jackson shared a tense and memorable Big Kahuna burger breakfast with a man he is threatening. (The fictional Hawaiian-themed fast food restaurant appears in several of Tarantino’s films). The burger was memorialized further in the ’90s Good Burger sketch on Nickelodeon’s “All That” starring Kenan and Kel; as a favored treat at Luke’s Diner on the WB’s “Gilmore Girls”; by Morgan Spurlock scarfing McDonald’s burgers for a month in his documentary “Super Size Me”; on “The Simpsons” at imaginary chain Krusty Burger, founded by the always-sinister Krusty the Clown; and on Fox’s animated sitcom “Bob’s Burgers,” where burgers with punny titles appear in each episode on the restaurant’s chalkboard (some of the best: “Poutine on the Ritz Burger” and “The Cauliflower’s Cumin From Inside the House Burger”).