The hamburger and the United States have had a continuing love affair with each other for over a century. Forms of chopped meat and minced steak have been enjoyed around the world for centuries, of course, but it was in the United States that the hamburger sandwich on a soft bun came into its own, spawning a food culture that is alive and well today in every remote corner of the nation.
The name “hamburger” is undoubtedly of German origin, with some theorists tying it to that of the “Hamburg-Amerika Line,” a shipping company responsible for bringing many people to the United States in the 1850’s. The ship’s kitchens would provide cheap meals by frying ground beef patties and serving them between slices of bread. Others dispute this view.
It may be impossible to prove who invented or marketed the first hamburger in the United States as we know it; there are many claimants to the title. At Louis’ Lunch, a popular no-frills eatery in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University students and others still enjoy flame-broiled burgers produced on vertical grills that date back to the 1920s. The restaurant, which has been in continual operation by one family for more than a century, claims to have invented the hamburger sandwich in 1895. Louis’ serves its vertical burgers on toasted sliced bread with only three possible garnishes: tomato, onion and cheese; no ketchup or mustard is permitted.
The town of Seymour, Wisconsin, home to the “Hamburger Hall of Fame,” also claims to be the site of the first hamburger sandwich. In 1895 Charlie Nagreen—“Hamburger Charlie”—apparently decided to sell his ground meat patties encased in bread slices so they would be easier to handle at the Outagamie County Fair. On the other hand, Akron Ohio also lays claim to the invention due to the efforts of event merchants Frank and Charles Menches who supposedly first sold the delicacy in and named it after the town of Hamburg, New York; the family still sells hamburgers today. The descendents of Oscar Weber Bilby claim their ancestor invented the first hamburger on a bun (rather than bread) near Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1891; this family also continues to sell hamburgers.
There are many other stories and legends involving hamburger origins, but hamburger historians agree that the dish first reached true fame at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. They also agree that the advent of the chain hamburger stand, beginning with the “White Castle” company in 1921, pushed the hamburger in a soft bun deeply into the national food culture. Somewhere along the line (again a subject of debate), the cheeseburger came into being. Other chains followed in White Castle’s footsteps, but none had the effect of Ray Kroc’s McDonalds Corporation, which started in the mid-1950s.
Today the top three restaurants in the United States—McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s—are all fast food hamburger operators, and there are thousands more. These large chains, particularly McDonalds, often come under criticism because of the high fat content of their hamburgers. In his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock intentionally eats all his meals at McDonalds for thirty days, with predictable negative physical and psychological effects. On the other hand, Hamburger America, produced in 2005 by George Motz, is a loving tribute to eight unique family-run hamburger restaurants in various part of the country, from the immense fresh ground green chile burgers of Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe, New Mexico to the unique steamed cheeseburgers at Ted’s in Meriden, Connecticut.
In addition to McDonald’s and the other top chains, prominent hamburger chains around the country include A&W, Back Yard Burgers, Big Boy, Bullets, Burgerville, Carl’s Jr, Checkers, Culver’s, Dairy Queen, Fatburger, Flamers Charbroiled Burgers, Fuddruckers, Hardee’s, In-N-Out Burger, Islands Restaurants, Jack in the Box, Johnny Rockets, Rally’s, Red Robin, Sonic, Steak n Shake, What a Burger and, of course, White Castle. The large general dinner chains like Applebee’s, Chili’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday, and Pizzeria Uno also depend on hamburgers for much of their business. The Fatburger motto may well speak for all hamburger restaurants: ”Do you really think man clawed his way to the top of the food chain to eat soy?”
Hamburgers (often now just called “burgers”) can range from simple to elaborate. All types of burgers are commonly sold with French-fried potatoes (“French fries”) on the side. The most common varieties served everywhere in the United States are:
- The plain hamburger, garnished with ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and/or relish.
- The cheeseburger, a hamburger topped with melted American, jack, Swiss or cheddar cheese.
- The bacon-cheeseburger.
- The chili-burger, with or without cheese.
The Red Robin restaurant chain, with over 300 locations covering most of the United States, offers a line of specialty burgers that may well be typical of “creative” burgers nationwide. In addition to standards like the plain hamburger, cheeseburger and bacon cheeseburger, they offer:
- A burger with cheddar cheese, crispy onion straws, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise, topped with barbecue sauce.
- A burger with bacon and melted cheese, topped with a fried egg.
- A mushroom and melted Swiss cheese burger.
- A bleu cheese burger.
- A burger with pepper-jack cheese, salsa, jalapeño peppers and chipotle
- A Japanese/Hawaiian themed burger with pineapple and teriyaki sauce.
- A guacamole bacon burger.
- A lettuce-wrapped beef burger with no bun for carbohydrate counters.
- Non-beef varieties like salmon burgers, fish burgers, turkey burgers, chicken burgers, and vegetable burgers with a similar range of toppings.
Hamburgers are, of course, frequently cooked at home, either in home kitchens or on outdoor grills. Hamburger meat is available in both fresh and frozen forms in American food stores, either in bulk or pre-formed into patties. A wide variety of alternate types of burgers—buffalo, chicken and turkey, vegetarian and “health”—are also available.