Savor some hamburger history

Most people know that a hamburger is a juicy patty of cooked ground meat served on a bun with a variety of toppings. What is not as well known is just how this beloved food became as popular as it is today.

Despite illusions to the contrary, a hamburger is not made of ham. In most instances, the term is used to describe a beef patty. Although burgers have been made from turkey, ostrich, bison, and even alligator, very rarely are they made from pork products.

The term “hamburger” is actually a misnomer. The name was derived from Hamburg, Germany, where the food was thought to originate. Just as the frankfurter is a food from Frankfurt.

The hamburger evolved from another dish that was named the “Hamburg Steak.” Immigrants traveling from Hamburg to New York were treated to the tastes of home on the shores of America with a Hamburg Steak. This was essentially a dish of salted and spiced beef. It bears little resemblance to the hamburger of today. Shredded beef that was seasoned with regional spices - either cooked or served raw - bec ame t he Hamburg Steak that Germans enjoyed to reconnect to their homeland.

Eventually the Hamburg Steak caught on and was included as a menu item at many American restaurants in the 19th century. Surprisingly, it was served as a breakfast food.

Dr. James Salisbury invented his own take on the Hamburg Steak at about this time, serving it as a lunch or dinner food with gravy. It was dubbed the Salisbury Steak.

In terms of the first time a Hamburg Steak was placed between bread to form the crude beginnings of a hamburger, the mystery continues. There are several who have la id claim to the burger origins, but none can be validated as the true inventor. One such person is Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, who began selling Hamburg Steaks flattened and between bread at a state fair so that visitors could move freely from booth to booth. There are others who argue that the burger can be traced back to other innovative cooks.

Meat-grinding machines of the 20th century helped propel the burger into a mainstream food. Fast-food chains eventually picked up on the concept of the hamburger and began massproducing burgers for the public. Vegetables, like onions and lettuce, were eventually added to give the burger a more “natural” appearance. Ketchup became the condiment of choice, with mayonnaise and mustard also placed on burgers.

It’s hard to argue the popularity of burgers today. They show up in all shapes and sizes at just about any restaurant imaginable. From meager beginnings as a food for the poor and vague history on its origins, the burger is perhaps now as American as a food can get but also an international delight. Millions are consumed every year and likely will continue to be enjoyed for years to come.

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2011-06-02 digital edition

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