In a cursory glance, the word “hamburger” may look like a portmanteau of the words “ham” and “burger.” Does this mean that the food originated in English-speaking circles and had ham in its original form? Prepare to be surprised and delighted by the story of how the essential parts of the modern hamburger came together!
According to food historian George Motz, the beginnings of the patty can be traced to the Mongols of the 13th century, who stuffed raw mutton bits under their saddles as to tenderize them. Motz claims that Russians subsequently enjoyed a similar medley of minced raw beef and spices, and bequeathed the food to the Germans three centuries later. Germans who emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-19th century often had to wait at the Port of Hamburg for ships, and it was there that Motz suspects they enjoyed Hamburg steak, a dish that consisted of chopped, cooked beef, potatoes, and gravy. This dish came to America and was served everywhere from high-end restaurants like Delmonico’s to the food carts of Manhattanites.
One of the stories about the birth of the patty-between-two-buns form of the burger has to do with a 15-year-old Wisconsinite named Charlie Nagreen: In 1885, Nagreen brought his meatball-loaded oxcart to the Seymour County Fair in Hortonville and placed smashed meatballs between two pieces of bread. The item was an immediate hit with the German crowd in the area; their familiarity with the Hamburg steak could only help. Year after year, the item became upgraded—the bread turned into buns and pickles made a debut. A different origin story for the burger involves a Texan named Fletch Davis; Davis brought his sandwich to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where others mocked the copious amount of ground beef as being barbaric.
The delectable slice of cheese is indispensable for many cheeseburger connoisseurs today. In 1924, the 16-year-old cook Lionel Sternberger (an ironic name), who worked at his father’s sandwich shop, The Rite Spot, reputedly placed cheese onto a cooking hamburger. Both Lionel and his father liked the combination so much that they named it the “cheese hamburger.” Fifteen years later, the earliest known record of the word “burger” became a shorthand for “hamburger.”
There are many household names that pop up when one looks into the history of the patty: White Castle; Menches; Louis’ Lunch. Figuring out which original burger claimant is telling the truth may take a while, but one thing is immediately obvious: We must be grateful for the juicy goodness we get to enjoy today. And guess what? Johnny’s Bar & Grill offers burgers of our own! So come enjoy a yummy, hearty meal today!