TWO ALL BEEF PATTIES, SPECIAL SAUCE, LETTUCE, CHEESE, PICKLES, ONIONS ON A SESAME SEED BUN….
“Hamburger is so firmly established in America’s Culinary Hall of Fame that it comes as rather a shock to discover it didn’t originate in America at all. The city where it was probably first eaten – Hamburg, Germany – disavows any connection between their kind of hamburger and ours. There, for centuries, chopped beef and onions have been formed into patties and cooked with a little fat on top of the stove, then served, sometimes with gravy made in the pan, as a main course. According to all the great French cookbooks, Germany gets credit for this dish, which the French call bifteck a la hambourgeoise. It is very often served a cheval, or with an egg on top, and very good it is, too.” James Beard on Food
There are competing claims for the invention of the hamburger. Texas, a state known for its cattle industry, offers Fletcher Davis, who is said to have sold hamburgers at his cafe in Athens, Texas in the late 1880s and then brought them to the St. Louis World’s Fair, where they became the rage. Neighboring Oklahoma, however, claims that the first real hamburger, served on an actual bun, was the work of Oscar Weber Bibly, owner of Weber’s Root Beer Stand in Tulsa. At a party on July 4, 1891, he served burgers on his wife’s homemade buns. (Serious afficionados might use sliced bread for a sandwich or patty melt, but for a burger they would demand a carbohydrate specially designed to absorb the juices of the meat and toppings.)
Not to be left in the dust by southwestern cattle ranchers, Wisconsin, home to a large population of German immigrants, argues that Charlie Nagreen, aka “Hamburger Charlie”, was only fifteen when he made sandwiches out of the meatballs he was selling at the 1885 Seymour Fair, so that his customers could walk and eat simultaneously. He named the sandwich after the hamburg steak familiar to local immigrants.
Stranger still is New York’s claim to burger invention. Residents of Hamburg, New York, which is named after its German counterpart, attribute the discovery to Frank and Charles Menches, brothers from Ohio who were vendors at the 1885 Erie County Fair. When they ran out of sausage for sandwiches, they substituted ground beef, and named their creation after the town in which it originated.
One possible arbiter of this debate, the Library of Congress, credits Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch, a small lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, with the creation of the first hamburger. Louis sandwiched a ground steak patty between two slices of white bread for an office worker in a hurry in 1900. Further, they credit the hamburger bun to a fry cook named Walter Anderson, who invented it at the hamburger stand he opened in 1916, and then went on to cofound, with insurance salesman Billy Ingram, the White Castle hamburger chain in 1921.
White Castle was the first restaurant chain to sell mass produced hamburgers to the public. While Anderson may have may have created the modern-day hamburger by marrying burger and bun, Ingram marketed it. In the wake of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry, Americans were more sensitive to the provenance of their food. Ingram promoted his burgers relentlessly as the perfect food for tea parties; wholesome, healthful, and sold in restaurants that were designed to appear conspicuously stately, white and clean.
Aside from mass produced hamburgers, those individually prepared vary by region and have developed a vocabulary of their own. They are often prepared “with everything,” although that might be called “all the way,” “deluxe,” “with the works,” “dragged through the garden” or “all dressed”. Everything usually includes lettuce, tomato, onion and sliced pickles. And don’t forget cheese. A “Texas burger” prefers mustard to ketchup and may also include vegetables, jalapeno slices and cheese. In New Mexico green chile burgers, called “sloppers”, are common. Wisconsin is home of the “butter burger”, with a buttered bun and more butter melted on top of the burger. In Minnesota, a “Juicy Lucy” is a burger with cheese melted inside the meat patty rather than on top of it. In the Carolinas, burgers often are served with cheese, chili, onions, mustard and coleslaw.
Hawaiian burgers may be topped with teriyaki sauce and pineapple, and a California burger is usually a cheeseburger with guacamole and bacon. Other burger lingo includes “quarterpounder”, “double or triple decker” (two or more patties on a single sandwich), which can be complicated by the addition of condiments (a “triple bacon cheeseburger”, for example), “patty melt”, and “slider” (a smaller version – so small that it slides down your throat in one gulp, or so greasy that you can’t avoid letting it slide).
The burger recipes that follow, cooked on the stove top, also can be cooked on a grill: First, prepare the grill for cooking. If using a charcoal grill, open vents on the bottom of the grill, then light the charcoal. Loosely ball five sheets of newspaper and put them in the bottom of the grill kettle. Place the lower grill over the newspaper and make a mound of charcoal in the center of the grill using about 20-25 briquettes. Light the newspaper in three or four places and monitor the flames, making sure that no pieces of burning paper fly out of the grill and checking to see that all the paper has burned and the center of the charcoal mound has ignited (it should have an orange red glow). Scrape the cooking rack and scrub with a wire brush to remove any previous grilled food.
When the coals are all ignited and covered with a layer of fine gray ash (about 15 minutes after lighting), spread coals evenly over bottom of grill (one briquette deep) and hold your hand about 5 inches above the grate. The fire is medium-hot if you can hold your hand there for just 3 to 4 seconds. If more heat is needed, add 5 to 10 more briquettes evenly distributed over the burning coals. Oil the cleaned cooking rack lightly and put it in place above the burning coals.
Grill burgers, without pressing down on them, until well seared on first side, about 3-4 minutes. Flip burgers with a wide metal spatula and continue grilling to desired doneness. On a charcoal grill that will be about 2 minutes for rare, 3 minutes for medium-rare, 4 minutes for medium or 5 minutes for well done. (A gas grill will require a minute more to reach each level of doneness). Serve immediately.
For those who like their burgers well-done, poking a small hole in the center of the patty before cooking helps the center to cook before the edges dry out.