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Two Centuries of Hamburger History in New York City

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On the mysterious origins and the many evolutions of the burger.

There’s no shortage of origin stories for the hamburger, so popular throughout the United States that it might be considered the national dish. But a true account of the burger’s birth may be lost in the murk of popular history, since most of the tales of how it began seem dubious. My own favorite theory locates the first burger where Tribeca is now. In the 1820s many sailors who populated the piers along the Hudson River were German, and vendors set up along the waterfront selling hamburger patties fried in butter as a cheap and convenient meal for homesick seamen. (German sailors would have called them frikadeller.) Needless to say these hamburgers had no buns, and I can find nothing to confirm the story other than having heard it somewhere a long time ago.

Other burger histories are similarly nebulous. Certainly, the name suggests an origin in Hamburg, Germany, an industrial port connected by the Elbe River to the North Sea. Until recently the old-fashioned term for a hamburger in New York City was "hamburg" or "hamburg steak." This was reflected in the names of the city’s oldest burger joints, such as the now-defunct Hamburg Heaven, founded by Connecticut housewife and recent divorcee Phyllis Moffett in 1939. But is "hamburg" just a slangy shortening of "hamburger," or does it hint at the city of where the dish originated?

In Hamburg, a hamburger with a bun is referred to as an American steak

Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont, writing in Eating in America (1976), point out that in Hamburg itself, a hamburger with a bun is referred to as an American steak, and Josh Ozersky joins them in claiming that the hamburger is a purely American invention. Root and de Rochemont go on to grouse, "The fact that ‘hamburger’ has given rise to senseless words like ‘cheeseburger’ is one of the many signs which betray the increasing degeneration of the American language." Yes, cheeseburgers might be the ruination of us all.

A notorious menu said to be from Delmonico’s dated 1834 mentions a Hamburg steak as its most expensive item ($10), but that turned out to be a fake. The first menu appearance in New York was actually in 1873 at Auguste Ermisch’s German restaurant, according to Andrew F. Smith in Hamburger: A Global History (2008). He claims the hamburger without the bun had become a "minor street food" in late 19th century. As in my story, he places the origin of this American obsession here in New York.

But elsewhere in the book Smith makes another interesting observation: All during the 1800s, beef from the farmland surrounding the city of Hamburg was considered the best beef in the world, as Kobe is today, exported to England and America in sausage form. If you consider the hamburger patty a sort of skinless fresh sausage not unlike a breakfast sausage patty, maybe the names "hamburg" or "hamburger" are simply a boast about the quality of the meat a vendor might be using, adding a touch of culinary glamor.

A hamburger isn't really a burger without a bun

But most, including our own Nick Solares, claim that the burger is defined by its bun, and a hamburger isn’t really a hamburger without one. Wikipedia claims the invention of the burger appearing between slices of bread or toast dates to around 1896, when the Chicago Daily News mentioned for the first time a "hamburger sandwich" being sold from a cart. But the Evening Gazette of Reno, Nevada, boasts that Reno got the jump on Chicago with the "hamburger steak sandwiches" of mobile vendor Tom Fraker in 1893, praising their ability "to replenish an empty stomach and even fortify Satan himself" — suggesting there was something rakish about standing in the street and gobbling a burger from a cart. These carts often appeared at night outside factory gates when nearby cafes were closed. Making burgers rather than cold sandwiches was an innovation occasioned by the appearance of the portable gas grill in carts sometime around 1890.

Actually, there are dozens of claims as to who first slapped a hamburger patty between two slices of bread. Fletcher Davis supposedly added bread to patty at a lunch counter in Athens, Texas, sometime in the 1880s; Frank and Charles Menches reportedly served up a similar configuration at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York in 1885 (suggesting the remote possibility that the hamburger was really named after the town of Hamburg, New York); and most famously, Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut added toasted bread to burger in 1900. His lunch counter Louis’ Lunch still exists there as a piece of living history, and toast is still favored over bun. Other contenders for first burger with bread include Tulsa, Oklahoma and Akron, Ohio.

When the hamburger bun as a specialized form of bread appeared — another important burger milestone — is anyone’s guess. It certainly followed sometime after the invention of the hot dog bun by Anton Feuchtwange at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Once the bun had been established early in the 20th century, there was no stopping the hamburger. Chains began serving them beginning with White Castle (1921), which offered a small, square, partly steamed burger in Wichita, Kansas. "Buy ‘em by the sack!" an advertisement urged. In succession followed other chains like McDonald’s (1940); Jack in the Box (1950); Burger King (1953, originally called Insta-Burger King); Carl’s Jr. (1956); and Wendy’s (1969).

Once the door swung open for burger innovation, there was no closing it

Although steakhouses and French bistros had dabbled in upscale burgers for decades, French chef Daniel Boulud ushered in a new era in 2001 when he introduced the dB burger at his Times Square bôite. The freshly ground sirloin patty was stuffed with foie gras and truffles and served on a parmesan bun. At an original cost of $27, it caused a sensation and spawned imitators. More important, restaurants at the bistro level and above — as well as newly founded boutique burger chains like Shake Shack — started affording the hamburger more respect, using proprietary mixtures of beef that sometimes incorporated atypical cuts of beef and other types of meat such as lamb and pork. And soon there were turkey burgers, salmon burgers, tuna burgers, veggie burgers, rice burgers, bulgogi burgers, ramen burgers, and dozens more. Once the door swung open for burger innovation, there was no closing it.

The New York hamburger has come a long way since it was a simple patty sauteed in butter on the New York piers nearly 200 years ago. (Well, maybe.)