Thursday, January 8, 2004
Who Invented Hamburger Sandwich? And What About the Cheeseburger?
By ROGER M. GRACE
The “hamburger” or “Hamburg steak” is said to have been served at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York in 1834. But it was served on a plate, not as a sandwich.
Early recipes seldom referred to serving the patty on bread or toast.
Who invented the hamburger sandwich? That’s a matter in contention, as is the identity of the originator of the cheeseburger.
Frank and Charles Menches are often credited with having invented the hamburger sandwich. The brothers, who lived in Ohio, were traveling concessionaires, selling ground pork sandwiches at county fairs. One day in 1885, so the story goes, they went to a butcher for ground pork, but he had run out of it. The Menches bought chopped beef from him, instead, and found their customers at the Erie County Fair in New York liked the product. While that well might be, the further claim that the sandwich got its name from the suburb in which the fair took place—Hamburg—is doubtful since the term “hamburger” was already in use to describe cooked chopped beef (its name taken from a dish served in Hamburg, Germany).
Charlie “Hamburger” Nagreen made claim to having served the first hamburger sandwich in 1885 at the Outgamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisc. He was 15 at the time. His concoction is variously described as a “flattened meatball” and “butter-fried ground beef.” In either event, he stuck it between slices of bread.
Louis Lassen of New Haven, Conn. is also portrayed as the inventor of the hamburger sandwich. It seems that Lazen sold steak sandwiches from his lunch wagon and would take the trimmings home which he ground and made into patties or meatloaf for his family. He’s said to have started serving the patties on bread to customers at his three-stool stand in 1900.
Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis of Athens, Texas is thought by some to have been the originator of the hamburger at his lunch counter in the late 1880s. It was apparently “Old Dave” who sold the hamburgers at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The hamburger attracted press attention there, and the birth of the hamburger is frequently associated with that event.
John E. Harmon, professor of geography at Central Connecticut State University, points out in his “Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States” that none of these tales of the invention of the hamburger sandwich entails use of a bun. Each of these first burgers “was first served between bread or (in New Haven) toast,” he notes.
Whoever it was who first plunked a hamburger patty on a bun and undertook to sell this product is the true inventor of the American hamburger, but probably destined to forever remain unknown.
Lionel C. Sternberger is believed to have invented the “cheese hamburger” in the 1920s in the Northeast portion of Los Angeles County. Tales differ, however, as to precisely when this occurred, and where. Some peg the date as 1924, others as 1926. The situs is usually said to be Pasadena, though that has been called into question.
Steve Harvey, in his column in the L.A. Times, wrote on March 27, 1991:
“American Heritage magazine points out that a local restaurateur was identified as the inventor of the cheeseburger at his death in 1964. Cooking at his father’s short-order joint in Pasadena in the early 1920s, the lad experimentally tossed a slice (variety unknown) on a hamburger ‘and lo! the cheeseburger sizzled to life.’
“No doubt it was fate. His name was Lionel Sternberger.”
However, on March 25, 1994, Harvey noted that since he penned that column, “two different readers have made the sizzling assertion that Sternberger actually scored his culinary breakthrough in Highland Park, in his eatery, the Rite Spot.”
“Now, however, Gordon Gulack of El Monte offers eyewitness evidence in favor of Pasadena.
“‘When I was going to Pasadena High in the ’20s, we used to go to a very small hamburger place run by Lionel Sternberger,’ Gulack writes. ‘This was before he opened the Rite Spot. It was a few miles east of there on Colorado (Boulevard) in Pasadena. I can remember getting a cheeseburger....’”
The Rite Spot—often identified as the place where the cheeseburger was first served—stood at 1500 W. Colorado Blvd., on Route 66. But was that its original location?
What does seem certain is that Sternberger was born Feb. 21, 1907, and died in Los Angeles on Jan. 30, 1964. As a 17-year-old in 1924, it is more likely he was working in his father’s establishment than being the chef at his own.
Others have claimed to have invented the cheeseburger, though their 1930s concoctions are doubtful “firsts.” Indeed, as you’ll see next week, the cheeseburger was on the menu of a downtown, Los Angeles eatery, O’Dell’s, in 1928, if not earlier.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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