How Did the All-American Hamburger Become so Popular?

Hamburgers. It’s synonymous with American cuisine, but no matter where you go, there’s a good chance you will find it on the menu. Today, there are options of chicken, beef, and even vegetarian burgers, with a never-ending list of topping options. But where exactly does the burger come from? And when did it become our favorite food?

By Cookist

Despite its association with America, the hamburger actually originated in Germany…well, sort of.  The eating of ground meat has existed for hundreds of years. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan and his Mongol horsemen were already eating raw ground lamb, shaped in a patty.

This was a meal of inconvenience, that they could ‘eat on-the-go’. When they invaded Moscow, Russians later modified this method of meat preparation to include onions and raw eggs. Today, this is known as Steak Tartare.

But what really started the journey to get to the hamburger as we know it today, was the Hamburg Steak. The recipe was brought to America in the 19th century, by German immigrants. It was a basic recipe, consisting of chopped up steak and some spices, similar to the Salisbury steak we eat today. German restaurants in New York jazzed up the basic Hamburg steak recipe by adding garlic and onions, and frying (or grilling) it. Back in 1837, it was one of the priciest items on the menu, more expensive than roast beef or veal. By the end of the 1800s, the dish became more popular, and soon it could be found in restaurants all over.


But this is only the story about the patty, where did the bun and extras come from? As with most delicious foods we enjoy today, the idea of adding a bun to the Hamburg steak was born out of necessity. But exactly when this necessity occurred, is somewhat in dispute.

One story says that hungry workers in the late 1800s started to eat Hamburg steaks between two slices of bread, to make an easy on-the-go lunch. Another says Louis' Lunch created the hamburger in 1900 to satisfy a rushed customer. What makes the correct determination of ‘the first hamburger’ difficult, is that no definition existed in the beginning. In the early 20th century, Hamburg steaks were eaten on slices of bread. And some argue that the correct definition should include eating ground beef on a ‘bun’. This might not be 100% correct.

These days you get chicken, fish and even vegan hamburgers that are all still called hamburgers! But there was a definite time in history where hamburgers became a ‘thing’. It indeed started with White Castle, who opened the first hamburger restaurant chain in 1921. It would still be 20 years later, in 1948, that McDonald’s would open their doors. And by the start of 2000, they already opened more than 11 000 stores outside America, bringing hamburgers to people all over the world.

Today, the hamburger is the undisputed ‘king of fast food’. Whether you eat at a fast-food chain, or at a high-end restaurant, chances are you will find one on the menu. Cheap or expensive. Chicken or beef. Lettuce or mayo. There’s a hamburger for everyone!

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