The history of the hamburger: the origin of a fast food icon
Origin of the burger is long and uncertain. Centuries of history, the invention of ‘fast food’ and a change of gastronomic paradigm take us to America to discover why the hamburger is as we know it today
If there is a dish in the world that the passage of time has been phenomenal, that is the hamburger. Europe, and the whole world, has been experiencing a real hamburger fever for years, causing this icon of American gastronomy not only to continue to reinvent itself, but has established itself as a dominant part of many cuisines and restaurants around the world.
But what is the true origin of the burger? Talking about the history and origin of the hamburger is not an easy task, but it well deserves it if we take into account that since it was born, its recognition has only increased, to a large extent, as another effect of globalization.
Its importance is such that, not so many years ago, the hamburger marked the beginning of a new gastronomic trend: that of gourmet burger joints, restaurants that opened their doors using this food as the central axis of their gastronomic offerings. But let’s go to the origin, as we said, a somewhat uncertain origin.
The European origin of the hamburger
If we talk about the modern burger, just as we consume it today between two slices of bread and seasoned with all kinds of ingredients, we will surely think of America.
However, before the hamburger landed on the American continent between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it had already made its first appearances in Europe as a simple steak, still without bread and without the characteristic dressings with which it is accompanied today. There are several debatable theories around his birth.
One of the stories about the birth of the hamburger takes us to the gastronomic book “De re coquinaria”, the work of the Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius; it is, according to some historians, the first documented reference to the hamburger.
Another theory or myth points out that the hamburger was an invention that emerged from the need for nutritious food, easy to transport and consume by Genghis Khan’s army (1167-1227) during its expansion into the territories of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. During their journeys, the fighters kept the steaks in the horses’ own mounts, and consumed them while riding.
According to some historians, this story could well refer not only to the hamburger, but also to the birth of other foods made from minced meat, such as the current steak tartar or tartar fillet; even others such as carpaccio, meatballs or the famous meatloaf.
Hamburg Steak, the predecessor of modern hamburger
To continue the hamburger journey, we now stop at Hamburg, which we could consider the European cradle of the precursor of the modern hamburger. That’s where the “Hamburg steak” would be born, a culinary symbol of the country that would soon make the leap to America, considered the New World for those who traveled in search of new and better opportunities.
Directly arrived from the iconic Port of Hamburg, these immigrants brought with them numerous customs, tastes and culinary trends that, little by little, a large number of American restaurants, especially from the United States, had to take advantage of.
What we know today as the classic burger was beginning to take shape at the beginning of the 20th century. Among the most important references, Delmonico’s Restaurant deserves special mention, considered by many historians as the first restaurant where this proto burger inspired by the authentic Hamburg recipe was cooked and offered.
It was 1837 and, by then, the price for which this delicacy was offered was considered high for the majority of the population. But the success of the burger was inevitable, and as it gained followers and its demand increased, its price became more affordable for the average citizen. Nothing could go wrong for a product that everyone liked, young and old, and that symbolized the modernity of a changing society.
Thus, the term “hamburguer steak” was replaced by “hamburguer”, until the term “burger” was finally popularized. Over the years, this diminutive has served to give name to the different varieties of hamburgers, depending on their ingredients, such as cheeseburger (hamburger with cheese) or baconburger (hamburger with bacon).
The arrival of hamburger bread
But when did hamburger bread enter the scene? Who was the pioneer who decided to flatten the meat and serve it between two slices of bread? The answer to this question is also uncertain; however, one of the most popular stories indicates that bread accompanied the hamburger for the first time during the celebration of a local fair in Seymour (Wisconsin).
There, a young man named Charlie Nagreen offered in his itinerant stall a small sandwich that had no other purpose than to make the client eat the meat fillet with his hands, while enjoying the festival. And the result was a success. So much so that, today, this city continues to celebrate the so-called “Burger Fest” annually in his honor.
The birth of fast food
From here, the history of the hamburger takes off. Not only was she the protagonist, but her modernization would be accompanied by other ingredients and garnishes maintained even today.
From chips or cola soft drinks, smoothies and other drinks, to sauces such as ketchup and mustard, or vegetables such as pickles and onion. All of these are already iconic companions of the current burger, a success that largely comes from the birth and expansion of the “fast food” concept popularized by some of the largest American fast food companies, including McDonald’s, Burger King and the pioneering White Castle.
The birth of White Castle in 1926 was the definitive proof that this new concept of “fast food” was here to stay, and to expand later to the rest of the world.
American society was looking to eat fast and cheaply, so like this chain, others saw the opportunity to offer their own version of hamburger designed to enjoy at any time and anywhere, whether standing, in the car or on the way to work.
In fact, it was the brothers Dick and Mac McDonald who introduced the concept of “drive-in” to refer to a new way of ordering and consuming the hamburger, without getting out of the car and in record time.
Thus, the fame of the hamburger as a fast food concept materialized with the arrival of McDonald’s, which opened its first store in May 1940 and its first franchise in 1955. Just a year earlier, in 1954, the second big fast food burger giant would be born: Burger King.
Whether gourmet or not, the truth is that hamburger is currently one of the most consumed foods by the world’s population. Its infinite versatility is, among other virtues, what has made it possible for us to taste a hamburger today in all kinds of restaurants, with prices suitable for all budgets and varieties made for all palates.
In fact, it is no longer uncommon to find in many restaurants and supermarkets hamburgers made with other types of meat such as chicken or turkey, as well as other “non-meat” versions, such as those made only with fish or vegetarian and vegan ones.