There are few foods more iconic of America than the humble hamburger. While the hamburger reached its current commercial incarnation in the country, the basic ground meat patty and name came from other cultures. The raw minced meat known as steak tartar was first brought to the port city of Hamburg, Germany in the 1600s. As the dish became popular in Hamburg, restaurants in New York City also began to carry a Hamburg steak to appeal to the many sailors and visitors coming from the German port. Growing immigrant populations made the Hamburg style steak a more popular menu item. Many food historians argue that this raw minced meat dish was the initial inspiration for the common hamburger, while others insist it was created spontaneously as the food needs of the Industrial era workers grew.
No matter which version of development you believe in, its clear that the meat patty on a bun first developed in America in the early 1900s. While steak tartar and Hamburg steak remained a popular breakfast and lunch meal, Americans need something quicker and easier to eat on the go as many people worked in factories and other environments that left little time for sit down meals. It wasn’t a great leap to stick the Hamburg steak between two slices of bread for handy eating without utensils or a plate. Street vendors play a role in all of the various invention claims on the hamburger, indicating it definitely arose as a convenience food. The meat filling switched to a cooked patty instead of raw mince because it doesn’t hold together as well between buns.
The use of the most well known hamburger toppings such as ketchup, mustard, onions and pickles began as the hamburger first developed in the early 20th century. Henry John Heinz began his famous ketchup production company in 1869 and shortly after this ketchup became a default condiments for hamburgers served across the country. Pickles, onions and lettuce became universally accepted as toppings during the 1940s. The 1940s served as a kind of Golden Era for the hamburger in the United States because Americans were eating more meals outside of the home, and the hamburger was an easy to prepare and inexpensive meal most diners and other small restaurants could serve.
Hamburgers first became a commercialized food as World War I ended and the Great Depression began. Ground beef could be made from parts of the cow that were otherwise not utilized, making hamburgers an inexpensive food that all levels of society could afford. Workers were also becoming more mobile at this time and cars began to play a larger role in everyday life. As the country slowly became more interconnected, fast food chains and diners popped up to accommodate travelers, busy workers and families who couldn’t afford fancy restaurants.
White Castle was the first of the now ubiquitous fast food chain based around the hamburger. Opened in 1916, the first location in Kansas used flat top grills and spatulas that allowed for easy cleaning. Customers appreciated the attention to hygiene in an era where many cooks handle raw and cooked foods with their hands without cleaning. The White Castle System moved from a stand to a full restaurant in 1926. Its focus on cooking hamburgers as quickly as possible earned it the title of the first fast food chain in America. White Castle was also responsible for changing the public’s perception of the greasy, often unhygienic hamburger that was commonly served at the time. Through careful marketing, the term burger lost its association with street vendors and carnivals and became linked to the clean environments of the White Castle System.
McDonald’s, the world’s biggest and most well known fast food chain, began as a simple California hot dog stand in 1937. When the first restaurant of the chain was opened in 1940, the founders Dick and Mac McDonald were surprised to find that hamburger sales accounted for 80% of their profit. While White Castle was still making in-roads in the Midwest, McDonald’s spent the 40s introducing the West Coast to the hamburger. By 1955 McDonald’s was doing so well that the brothers opened their first chain location in Des Plaines, Illinois. The company’s focus on developing a system that produced consistent hamburgers in record time helped it grow once Ray Kroc bought it.
More burger chains sprung up as increased transportation made eating on the go even more popular. Among them, cultural icons such as Krystal (1932), Steak ‘n Shake (1934), Carl’s Jr. (1941), In-N-Out Burger (1948), Whataburger (1950), Jack in the Box (1951), Burger King (1954), Burger Chef (1954), Hardee’s (1960), Red Robin (1969), and Wendy’s (1969). Each chain brought its own special variation or version of the iconic hamburger. A number of restaurants, including O’Dells and Rite Spot, lay claim to inventing the cheeseburger itself. Big Boy, founded in 1936, was the first to offer the now classic double cheeseburger. White Castle created the smaller, square hamburger called a slider. Wendy’s started with an emphasis on fresh beef over the frozen formed patties that had been created as a way of standardizing the shape and size of the patty.
Hamburgers have stolen the hearts and stomachs of Americans and have made their way into our culture. Movies, television shows, games and comic strips are all available that revolve around the beef patty sandwiched between two buns. In 1932, Popeye’s friend Wimpy first announced, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”. Games like BurgerTime gave arcade visitors in the 80s a taste of what it was like to work in a fast food chain, and artists have created works featuring the burger since the 1950s. The patty can be made from tofu, salmon or exotic meat like kangaroo and ostrich instead of the common ground beef. Burgers are now a global food with McDonald’s operating in over 120 countries. This humble food has spread from the raw minced steak of Hamburg, Germany to a meal fit for the King of any country.