The History of the Hamburger: From Egyptian Desert to the St. Louis World’s Fair
The average American eats about 222 pounds of red meat and poultry every year. A large portion of that is the hamburger. It’s hard to blame us. Burgers are juicy, tasty goodness.
We know, because we make the grass-fed beef used to make those tasty burgers.
There have been many attempts to curb Americans’ appetite for a good burger. They have not succeeded. That 222-pound figure is the U.S. Department of Agriculture number for beef and chicken consumption in 2018 - a record high for meat consumption, beating the old record of 221 from 2004.
Some Numbers to Consider
When the government puts out estimates such as this, everyone likes to come up with a comparison. For example, the Huffington Post pointing out that Americans eat, on average, three hamburgers a week for a total of 50 million every year. That’s enough hamburgers to circle the Earth 32 times every year.
Or look at it this way. Hamburgers account for 40% of all sandwiches eaten in the U.S. every year.
We like our burgers here in America. But most of us don’t have the slightest idea where they come from. As it turns out, the history of the hamburger is both long and somewhat controversial.
Early Cattle Herders
While there are disagreements over the history of the hamburger, no one disagrees that its roots can be traced back to Egypt and the Mesopotamian valley. There, ancient civilizations began keeping cattle herds for easy access to beef, leather and milk.
The beginnings of the hamburger may be in the deserts of northern Africa. According to a study by Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the earliest inhabitants of Nabta in the Nubian Desert of what is now Egypt were “small seasonable camps of cattle-herding and ceramic-using people.” In those early days, cattle were a “walking larder” that became “an economic basis for power and prestige.” They provided meat only for ceremonial occasions.
From there, meat consumption increased. A variety of different dishes over the centuries eventually led to the gourmet burger you can buy today.
Like most culinary dishes, the hamburger evolved from a series of dishes dating back thousands of years.
For example, the Roman cookbook Apicius, which dates to the First Century AD, includes a recipe for baking beef with wine, crushed pine nuts, pepper and fish sauce, all formed into a patty. Sometimes, they are even made today for historic events.
The Mongols also made meat patties, sometimes crushed underneath their saddle as the rode, then eaten while they were on the move. This was apparently the origin of steak tartare, as the Mongols spread their methods for meat consumption into Russia and eventually the lands that would one day become Germany, according to “Mongol Warrior 1200-1350,” by Stephen Turnbull.
Germany ended up being the game changer when it came to hamburgers.
You are forgiven if you believed that Hamburg, Germany is the birthplace of the hamburger. It is, in a way, but not the fully formed dish you see today. But the city was a center for the beef industry and home to the Hamburg-style chopped steak.
The dish features beef that was minced and combined with garlic, onions, salt and pepper, then formed into patties. It was typically served raw and considered a high-end meal.
In the 1840s, when various states within the German confederation began to fight one another, people began to leave the area for the United States. They bought a love of chopped steak with him.
In New York City, vendors - who had gotten wise to the tastes of the incoming Germans - set up stalls selling “Hamburg Steaks.” German immigrants eventually opened restaurants and beer gardens that featured Hamburg Steak, often the most expensive dish on the menu.
Along about this time, James H. Salisbury, a doctor in New York, began telling patients that cooked beef patties were just as healthy as raw patties and would help people avoid any illness brought on by raw meat. That directly led to the invention of the Salisbury Steak, adopted by “cooks and physicians alike,” according to History.com.
People very quickly took Salisbury’s advice, especially as new cooking tools available for purchase made it easier to grind beef at home.
The 1904 World’s Fair
The World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 introduced Americans to the latest in technology, fine arts and manufacturing. It was really the place to be. And one of the new things people could try was the hamburger.
Somehow, between the Hamburg Steak, the Salisbury Steak and the World’s Fair, someone had decided to put a beef patty on a bun. It found a wider audience at the World’s Fair and has been popular ever since.
But this is where the shadow falls on the history of the hamburger.
Some claim the burger first went on the bun (along with onions and a pickle on the side) at a farmer’s stand in Texas, which makes sense because, well, it’s Texas. They’ve had a love affair with beef for a long, long time.
According to Texas Monthly, the first burgers were served by a man known as Uncle Fletcher Davis at a cafe on the courthouse square in Athens, Texas, a little more than 60 miles southeast of Dallas. It was Davis who took his concoction, which he had been serving since the late 1880s, to St. Louis.
Texas Monthly reports that this story is backed up by a report from the World’s Fair by the New York Herald about the selling of something called “hamburgers” by “an unknown vendor.”
But, when it’s something as famous as the hamburger, it’s of course cannot be that easy. Other cities have laid claim to the first hamburger. They include Seymour, Wisconsin; New Haven Conn.; and Village of Hamburg, N.Y.
What everyone can agree on is that it was the genius of Edgar “Billy” Ingram and Walter Anderson that brought the hamburger to the masses. The two opened the first White Castle restaurant in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, selling the little square burgers that became world famous.
Nothing indicates the popularity of the hamburger more than the fact that there are still 377 locations for White Castle in 13 states.
So, what is the history of the hamburger? It includes the wisdom of cattle ranchers 10,000 years ago, Romans, Mongolians and, most importantly in terms of direct influence, the great steaks of Hamburg, Germany.
But it took the vision of American entrepreneur to turn it into one of the most popular sandwiches on the planet.