The earliest known hamburger aficionados were the Russian Tartars, nomadic groups who joined Genghis Khan’s army in the early 13th century.
They shredded the tougher cuts of beef and ate them without cooking, an early version of the dish we call Steak Tartare (although it should be Steak Tatare). They introduced the dish to Germany before the 14th century.
We can thank German immigrants for bringing over what became the quintessential American food: the hamburger, or burger for short. (They brought the the frankfurter, too.)
The Germans added spices, and the dish, served both cooked and raw, became popular among people of limited means.
In Hamburg, it became known as “Hamburg steak.” When it arrived in the U.S. during the 1880s wave of German immigration, it became a “hamburger steak” and finally, a “hamburger.”
The original recipe—chopped beef mixed with onions and pepper—appeared on American menus as far back as 1836, although the term “hamburger steak” first appeared in print in a Washington State newspaper in 1889.
The hamburger also traveled to England, where Dr. J. H. Salisbury, a hearty beef eater, championed the shredding of all foods to improve digestibility (see Salisbury steak).
As with the frankfurter—a sausage in a bun—it took good old American ingenuity to wrap bread around a beef patty.
The date of the burger-in-a-bun is not known for certain, although by the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the hamburger was already a sandwich.
Louis’ Lunch in New Haven claims to have served up the original burger in the U.S. in 1900, putting a beef patty, tomato, onion, and cheese between two slices of toasted white bread—no ketchup or mustard. They still serve it the same way.
Several other American towns lay claim to this watershed in American cuisine. One of them is Seymour, Wisconsin, which claims that in 1885, one Charlie Nagreen was having trouble selling his meatballs at the Seymour Fair—it was hard for people to eat them as they walked around. So Nagreen flattened the ball of meat and placed the patty between two pieces of bread.
That same year, the Menches brothers, who sold sausage patty sandwiches, ran out of pork at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York. Their butcher suggested that they use beef, and they christened the product the Hamburg sandwich.
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