Contenders for the Honor of Inventing the Hamburger
To be a true hamburger, we need to put that ground meat patty between the two slices of a bun. There are several main contenders, all claiming the belt that declares them the burger champion, but if the hamburger was a spontaneous invention, there are many who may have cried, "I coulda been a contender."
Peruse the dates below for the invention, and look at the spatial distance between the various claimants. Since the creation of the true burger occurred before the time of the automobile, distance and date may suggest that the idea of slapping the meat patty into a bun may have happened spontaneously. Perhaps no single claimant can claim the prize, perhaps they must share it, however reluctantly.
The main claimants vying for the title are: "Hamburger Charlie" Nageen in 1885,Frank Menches at the Summit (N. Y.) County Fair of 1892, Fletcher Davis in Athens, Texas, sometime before 1904; Frank Menches at the Summit (N. Y.) County Fair of 1892 and Louis Lassen of Louis' Lunch in New Haven in 1900. Let's examine these contenders, each attempting to find their place in history - more than fifteen minutes of fame with so popular and successful a product.
"Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen: Nagreen was selling a relative of the burger - the meatball when, in 1885, he went to the fair in Seymour Wisconsin. His meatballs weren't selling, and he came up with the idea of flattening his meatballs and putting them between bread - a forerunner of all the Disneyland folks with their burgers. Today Seymour, Wisconsin is home to an annual Burger Fest, held in August. Of course there is a hamburger eating contest as well as what is billed as "the world's largest hamburger parade."
Charles and Frank Menches: The descendents of the brothers Charles and Frank run a small chain in Ohio and are eager to tell the story of their ancestors invention, supposedly invented at the 1885 fair in Hamburg, New York. The story goes that the brothers were primarily sausage-sellers, but their sausages ran out due to high demand at the fair. Not ready to lose customers, they fried up the beef, seasoned it with coffee, brown sugar, and some other secret ingredients, then made it into a sandwich. When asked what the sandwich was called, Frank looked at the banner for the Hamburg fair and said, 'This is the hamburger.' "
Fletcher Davis aka “Old Dave.” Living in Athens, in Henderson County, Texas, "Old Dave" ran an Athens lunch counter next to the local drug store where, in the 1880's, he sold a regular burger patty that was housed, not just in slices of bread, but in bread that had just popped out of the oven. According to legend, the townspeople of Athens raised money to send "Old Dave" to the World's Fair, held in St. Louis in 1904.
Louis Lassen of Louis' Lunch: In New Haven, Connecticut, Lassen ran a lunch joint called Louis' Lunch. According to this account, in 1900 Lassen was responding to a highly stressed gentleman who was in a hurry and wanted food on the run. He sandwiched a broiled beef patty between slices of bread. Surely the hurrying gentleman was a visionary of our contemporary stressed-out mode of living, while Lassen was quick to understand that the bread would contain the beef without making a mess. The Library of Congress supports this claim, though there may be unsung heroes elsewhere. And, by the way, no ketchup is served on this burger.
With due respects to all these people, we think that all deserve a crown for seizing an idea whose time had come. All that remained was to bring this great food to the general public.
Popular Culture and the Burger: From Castles of White to Arches of Gold; Carhops, Drive-ins, & Cartoons
The Burger Reaches Out to the Masses
The first printed record of a restaurant hamburger was at Delmonico's in New York City. They sold beefsteak for four cents, but a hamburger for ten cents. Delmonico's did not influence other restaurants as the burger was to become a food for the masses, taken to heart as an icon of the popular culture of America. It was probably the rise of the automobile culture that fed our national obsession with burgers. The quickly made burger was an obvious choice for anyone on the road. The automotive center including racing was in the Midwest. The Pig Stand in Dallas-Ft. Worth opened in 1921as did the stand that did more to popularize the hamburger than any other business of its day - the White Castle. Selling for a nickel per burger, the White Castle knew the value of its product and marketed them with the slogan ''Buy 'em by the Sack.'' Called ''the slider,'' the White Castle version of a hamburger was not charcoal broiled over a hot grill, but was cooked on a hot griddle over a layer of onions. The steam from the onions cooked the hamburger, which kept the burgers moist. The first White Castle opened in 1921, but by 1930 there were more than 100 restaurants in the chain.
The burger had become big business and others were eager to conquer this new territory. The Wigwam drive-in restaurant (later the Teepee) opened in Indianapolis in 1932. The 1930'salso saw the rise of 'Wimpy burgers.' Wimpy burgers were inspired by the Popeye cartoon character named Wimpy. This character was Popeye's friend who is quoted as saying that he'd pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today. 'In England, Wimpie continues to be a synonym for hamburger.
1948 saw the first In-N-Out Burger a drive-in hamburger stand equipped with a two-way speaker. Founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park, California, this early drive-in was not a drive-through, and cute young carhops served the food to drivers who didn't want to leave their cherished autos. No doubt the appearance of nubile young bodies in coy costumes helped the burger's popularity.
Drive-ins were extremely popular in Indianapolis during the 50's as was incessant cruising all night long. Also through the 1950's-1960's you could pull up to New Jersey diners or drive-ins, and get a hamburger on a roll. If you wanted onions (grilled or raw), they were a special request. Condiments (mustard, ketchup, and sometimes mayo) were available on the table or at the counter. However, if you wanted it "dragged through the garden", where it was garnished with lettuce, tomato, onion, and perhaps a couple slices of pickle, then you asked for a "California Hamburger." The hamburger was evolving further into the food of infinite variety that it has become today.
James Beard, in 1941, had a recipe for this "exotic" California burger in his book Cook It Outdoors. When Burger King's Whoppers appeared in the 1960's on Long Island, everyone said the Whopper was a "California-style" burger (all those vegetable toppings). It seemed very exotic at the time. Before that, just about the only burger toppings we knew of were ketchup, cheese, and pickles.
How did California, more specifically southern California, become so deeply associated with the hamburger? Perhaps it was the 'Beach Party' movies with Frankie and Annette who were eating nothing but burgers, or pizza. Perhaps it was the car culture so dominant in California, perhaps it was American Graffiti which supposedly took place during the summer of 1962. In 1981, Paul Wenner, owner of a vegetarian restaurant in Oregon, invented the Gardenburger, possibly the first veggie burger ever. His creation soared in popularity and he closed the restaurant and went into the business of manufacturing Gardenburgers.
And then came the Golden Arches and success that was not to be imagined by any of the early pioneers. The hamburger became a world-wide phenomenon. Burgers were everywhere, from Asia to Europe and back to their home in the U.S.
Lest we forget - the Cheeseburger & More Contenders to Fame
Dare we ignore the ever-popular cheeseburger? It was the first invention that intimated that a hamburger might be open to variety and experimentation. Again there is more than one person looking for glory.
In 1924, one Lionel Sternberger (no pun intended with that last name) supposedly put a slice of cheese on top of a burger served at the Rite Spot Restaurant in Pasadena, CA, and called it rather officially a 'cheese hamburger.'
A decade later, in Louisville Kentucky, Margaret and Carl Kaelin tossed on cheese and upped the price of a burger to 15 cents and called it Kaelin's Cheeseburger. It would become a specialty of the house.
But one year later, in 1935, Louis E. Ballast created a cheeseburger at his Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In in Denver, Colorado. He attempted to trademark the name but was not able to do so. It is interesting to note that this was a drive-in way back in 1935 when the car culture (so troublesome today with gas prices) had not fully gripped the States. Ballast was a visionary, if not the original inventor of the cheeseburger.