Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, December 31, 2003


Page 23



Geneology of American Hamburger: Roots Traced to Russia




During the days of the Cold War, Russia was claiming to have invented just about everything from judo to tennis to the airplane, providing fodder for jokes by Bob Hope and other comics. To be taken more seriously is Russia’s claim to invention of steak tartare, progenitor of the hamburger.

John Harmon, professor of geography at Central Connecticut State University, in his online “Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States,” recites:

“The origin of ground beef is accepted to have been with Mongolian and Turkic tribes known as Tartars who shredded low-quality beef from Asian cattle to make it more edible and digestible. Russian Tartars, possibly through other peoples in the Baltics, introduced it to Germany before the 14th century. The Germans flavored it with regional spices and either cooked it or ate it raw. It became a standard meal for poorer classes and in Hamburg acquired the name ‘Hamburg steak.’”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, notes that German immigrants introduced this food to North America in the 19th Century. It adds:

“The entrée may have appeared on an American menu as early as 1836, although the first recorded use of Hamburg steak is not found until 1884. The variant form hamburger steak, using the German adjective Hamburger meaning ‘from Hamburg,’ first appears in a Walla Walla, Washington, newspaper in 1889. By 1902 we find the first description of a Hamburg steak close to our conception of the hamburger, namely a recipe calling for ground beef mixed with onion and pepper.”

Delmonico’s in New York would dispute the reference to 1936, claiming that it started serving hamburgers in 1934, priced at 10 cents each.

The University of Calif. at Davis website provides this information:

“‘Filet de boeuf a la Hambourgeoise,’ was sold in Boston in 1874, while Hamburger Beef Steak appeared on the Lookout House Restaurant menu in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the mid-1870s. During the last years of the 19th century ground round or hamburger became associated with a hot sandwich, and early 20th century illustrations depict hamburger served on sliced white bread or toast. ‘Hamburger Steak, Plain’ and ‘Hamburger Steak, with Onions,’ was served at the Tyrolean Alps Restaurant at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair.

“The modern hamburger (on a bun) appears during World War I. The White Castle restaurant chain was established in 1916 at Wichita, Kansas and by the early 1920s sold hamburgers. Some scholars say the first hamburger served on a bun appeared in 1917 at Drexel’s Pure Food Restaurant, Chicago. By 1920 hamburgers on buns were sold in San Francisco and Cincinnati, and by the mid-1920s, hamburgers were recognizable to most Americans. Hamburger popularity continued to grow, and became associated with mobility and the concept of ‘fast food.’ The hamburger as an icon of American popular culture spread globally during the 1980s and 1990s with franchise restaurants opening around the world. American-style ‘burgers’ can be purchased today from Moscow to Quito and from Tokyo to Cairo.”

From a 1941 decision of the California Supreme Court, we learn that the hamburger had by then gained popularity as food to eat while walking around, but was not commonly consumed in restaurants, and was not considered a “meal.”

The decision arose from a sales tax dispute. The plaintiff wanted a refund of taxes it paid, under protest, on sales made during the 1937-39 world’s fair on San Francisco’s “Treasure Island.” Operating food booths, it “sold only frankfurter (commonly referred to as ‘hot dog’) and hamburger sandwiches, together with coffee, milk, ale and beer,” the per curiam decision said. The issue was whether these sandwiches constituted a “meal,” rendering them exempt from the sales tax. Resolving the issue against the concessionaire, the high court said:

“A ‘hot dog’ or hamburger sandwich is the type of food frequently offered for sale to and desired by persons who wish to eat something while walking about. It is not the type of food generally ordered by a person who patronizes a hotel, restaurant or other public eating establishment with the intention of securing a ‘meal’….It may not be said that one has ‘served’ a meal who merely prepares a sandwich for consumption, wraps it in a paper napkin and hands it to a purchaser without offering any facilities for its consumption on the premises, and with the intention that it be consumed elsewhere.”

Cookbooks in the first half of the 20th Century generally did not allude to use of a bun to encase hamburgers; only occasionally was there a reference to bread or toast. Since family members were not apt to wander around the house while eating their beef patties, buns were apparently viewed as unnecessary.

Next week, I’ll discuss conflicting claims as to who invented the hamburger sandwich and disputes over who originated the cheeseburger.


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