The Hamburger

Yes, I actually wrote an entire paper about the hamburger. Not only that, I competed with it in the NCFCA as an “Illustrated Oratory” speech and qualified for Regional competition in it. The speech (in and of itself) is not that great. Personally, I think it was more my Illustrations that got me anywhere with it. But since you can’t see those, the speech itself will have to do. Anyway, here it is:

Sitting at the dinner table, six year old genius, Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, asks his mother the probing question:, Calvin is misinformed about hamburgers, so throughout this speech I hope to clarify his misconceptions. Because of their convenience and tastiness hamburgers have become one of the most popular meals today. We’ll investigate the hamburger by looking at the burger, the bun, and the toppings.

Before the burger met the bun, the development of ground beef would have to take place. The actual beginnings of the hamburger are uncertain. However, there are many theories and unusual tales about the origins of ground meat. One of these involves ancient Mongol horsemen. It is said that they would put raw meat between their saddles and their horse’s flanks. After a lengthy ride, this raw meat would become tenderized making a convenient and easily consumed meal by the horsemen on-the-go. The practice of tenderizing meat eventually spread westward to the countries around the Baltic Sea.  Yet they took it a step further by using a knife to finely chop the meat, and shape it into patties, thus bringing it closer to a modern hamburger. During the 1700s, thismethod reached the large port of Hamburg, Germany by traveling merchants.  It was elaborated on by adding chopped onion, raw egg, and various seasonings. This was called the Hamburg steak, and is the most likely origin of the term “hamburger.” In Andrew Smith’s Hamburger, A Global History he defines the Hamburg steak as “an inexpensive dish made by grinding beef not otherwise used for choice cuts.” In the 19th century, German immigrants brought the popular Hamburg steak to the United States. Within several years the steak began to appear in different restaurants, but did not become well known until it was served at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. An article in the New York Tribune reported that the Hamburg steak was one of the more popular dishes. Soon after this, the Hamburg steak was served by multiple restaurants, and found in cook books. The beef patty of the modern day hamburger is a direct descendant of the Hamburg steak.

Today, there are many different types of burgers, cooked in many different ways. A restaurant in Trenton, New Jersey serves a massive half pound burger, but don’t ask for a smaller one, because it’s the only burger they offer. Another burger joint in Pittsburgh cooks their burgers over a wood fueled open flame grill. George Motz, a burger connoisseur writes “It’s perfectly charred on the outside and juicy and moist on the inside.” McDonald’s iconic Big Mac contains two one ounce all beef patties that are seasoned with salt and pepper. However the Big Mac and the prevalent hamburgers we know today would not exist until ground beef met the bun.

In Josh Ozersky’s book, The Hamburger, he points out that for “almost its entire existence, a hamburger has meant ground beef served on a bun.”  At the end of the 1800’s America’s workforce turned to factories. Andrew Smith explains that “The invention of the hamburger sandwich was fostered by the industrialization of America.” Factory workers lived far enough away from work that it was inconvenient for them to go home for a noon day meal. Some would bring their own lunches with them; others would go to restaurants or grocery stores. However, as factories began to expand they started having night shifts as well. In 1872, Walter Scott, a Rhode Island man, noticed most restaurants and grocery stores were closed in the middle of the night. Hefilled a small wagon with various types of food, hauled it to a local factory, and sold meals to hungry night time factory workers. The Popularity of Scott’s wagon grew as, others built bigger and more elaborate wagons with full stoves. These carts served the conventional Hamburg steak. Since this was difficult to conveniently eat, lunch wagons were soon selling the steak between a couple pieces of bread, creating a sandwich.

There are several conflicting accounts of people claiming to have invented the hamburger sandwich. One took place at the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin where fifteen year old Charlie Nagreen was serving ground beef. As the story goes, hungry fairgoers wanted to walk around looking at the various attractions while eating their food. Considering this request was messy and difficult, Nagreen satisfied his customers by serving the ground beef between two pieces of bread and arbitrarily named it “the hamburger.” Another report of the burger meeting the bun took place at Louis’ Lunch, a burger joint in New Haven Connecticut. In 1900, owner Louis Lassen was asked by a customer to make a “quick sandwich.” He proceeded to do so by taking leftover bits of steak, shaping them into a patty, and placing the patty between two slices of bread. There are various other claims similar to these, but as John Edge author of Hamburgers and Fries puts it: “For the most part, the telling of such tales is an exercise in fiction, for none of these accounts is truly verifiable.” Later, when automobiles became common and the fast food industry developed, hamburgers popularity surged. Josh Ozersky tells us, “One reason the hamburger so far outstripped its rivals in the fast-food era was because it was so easy to eat…while driving.”

There are multiple ways of serving burgers on buns. Louis’ Lunch, for example, serves their burger on Pepperidge Farm white toast, trying to authenticate their claim to the invention of the hamburger. Numerous burger outlets serve white buns, which are often toasted or topped with sesame seeds. Likewise, the Big Mac is prepared on a white toasted sesame seed bun. Buns however are not the only component that enhances the burger, toppings add tastiness and spark diversity, creating a more individualizedmeal.

Toppings allow innovation because of the vast assortment of choices. A basic hamburger at McDonald’s comes with mustard, ketchup, pickles, and onions. Burgers don’t need to be limited to these common toppings and condiments, for example, Shady Glen, a hamburger outlet in Connecticut serves their quarter pound burger with four slices of cheese placed on top. While cooking, the cheese partially melts off onto the griddle, encircling the burger with a thin crisp ring. Marty’s, another burger joint, advertises themselves as the “Home of the combo.” This is a hamburger patty cooked with cheese and a hotdog on top. But, the possibilities for a burger are endless.A gourmet burger chain, Red Robin, has a burger for everyone, by offering huge varieties of toppings from fried egg to guacamole, and sautéed mushrooms to pineapple. They even offer a vegan burger for those who are not keen on ground meat. My favorite way to eat a burger is with lettuce, onions, cheese and ketchup. I also enjoy my Grandfather’s “Cajun spice” a topping composed of powdered onion, thyme, and cumin, among other spices. Some restaurants like to take a minimalist approach. At Louis’ Lunchketchup is not served, but only tomatoes and onions. Jeff Lassen, son of the owner Ken , says “We honestly believe you don’t need ketchup because it’s the best burger there is.” George Motz adds “students from nearby Yale frequently try to sneak in small packets of ketchup only to be told that the burger they wanted to sit down and eat is now a to-go order.” Toppings are not the only items that complement burgers, sides offer a great way to expand your meal as well.When meat was rationed throughout World War II restaurants started preparing French fries with their burgers. Andrew Smith explains, “Potatoes became a more important menu item during the war. They were inexpensive, plentiful and not subject to rationing.” As a result of toppings and sides, hamburgers have become a tastier and more innovative meal.

Today Americans eat about 13 billion hamburgers each year. McDonald’s alone sells over 75 hamburgers every second worldwide.The evolution of the hamburger began with the development of ground beef, continued with the application of the bun, and was completed with the implementation of toppings. Because of hamburgers convenience and tastiness they have come to be one of the most popular meals today. Unlike Calvin I’m glad that hamburgers are made out beef. I don’t know about you, all this talk is making me hungry, so excuse me while I go and get a burger, do you want to join me?


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Edge, John. Hamburgers & Fries. 2005.      

Smith, Andrew. Hamburger, A Global History. 2008.

Motz, George. Hamburger America. 2008.

Tennyson, Jeffrey. Hamburger Heaven. 1993

Ozersky, Josh. The Hamburger. 2008.

McWilliams, Mark. The Story behind the Dish: Classic American Foods. 2012.