A hamburger is a sandwich that typically features a ground meat patty, often made from beef, nestled between slices of a bun or bread roll. These burgers are commonly accompanied by a variety of fillings, including cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, bacon or chilis. To enhance the flavour, condiments such as ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, relish or a unique "special sauce". If cheese is added, the burger becomes a cheeseburger.
A widely popular food, Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, has often been credited as its birthplace. The story goes that in 1900, a customer walked in, asked for a portable meal, and received a patty of steak trimmings between two slices of toast. However, recent research has cast doubt on this narrative.
Evidence suggests that many United States businesses were already serving hamburgers before Louis' Lunch's claim. An advertisement in a Texas newspaper was promoting "hamburger steak sandwiches" way back in 1894. Further investigation uncovered over a dozen newspaper references to hamburgers in the 1890s, debunking Louis' Lunch claim and challenging other regional origin stories.
The concept of meat between bread dates back to ancient times, with Roman cookbooks and other historical references showing early versions of the burger. In the mid-1700s, recipes for "Hamburg sausages" on toasted bread existed. Germany had their own meat patty on bread recipe, known as Rundstück Warm, by 1869.
The direct precursor to the modern burger seems to be "hamburger steak," appearing on American menus in the early 1870s as minced beef and onion patties on a plate, though not between slices of bread.
Hamburger steaks derived their name from cows raised in Hamburg. With the availability of meat grinders in the late 1800s, hamburger steaks became widespread.
By the 1880s, they were served across the United States, often in places that also offered bread and sandwiches. In 1887, a New York lodging house advertised a meal with "hamburger steak and bread" for 10 cents. In 1891, the Boston Globe featured a butcher shop's cookbook with a "hamburger on toast" recipe.
Numerous references to hamburger sandwiches in various states challenge the notion that Louis' Lunch holds the burger's birthright. The hamburger's association with late-night dining was common in the early days, with an 1894 San Francisco Chronicle article noting its allure in the nighttime.
As the research revealed, the hamburger history is more intricate and eclectic than believed. While Louis' Lunch played a role in popularising the hamburger, it was already part of American menus long before 1900. As with many culinary creations, the burger's origins are complex, influenced by regional traditions and evolving culinary practices.