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Burger Beginnings

April 2023
1min read

Editor’s note: J. C. Furnas’s inquiry into the origins of the hamburger produced an especially vigorous response. It began with a press release—“Buffalo, New York regional Agricultural Fair solves mystery posed in December issue of American Heritage Magazine”—in which Paul Laing, CEO of the Erie County Agricultural Society, declared that “the Hamburger was first sold at our Fair in 1885.” It seems that two Ohio brothers arrived on the grounds too late to get a supply of chopped pork for their sandwich concession. “The butcher sold them beef and after some experimentation they formulated a sandwich.” When asked what it was, they simply appropriated the name of the Buffalo suburb where they were doing business—Hamburg, New York. “Suggestions that the name originated in Germany ignore the fact that ground beef is not called hamburger in German; there is no known connection to that nation.” Saying that a recipe for the sandwich appears in a cookbook published in Buffalo as early as 1890, Laing concludes, “Few segments of our culture are as well documented as this favorite: the first Hamburger was served at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y. by Frank and Charles Menches in 1885.”

This is certainly not a claim likely to play well in Seymour, Wisconsin. The town sees itself as the “Home of the Hamburger” on the basis of the achievement of Charles (“Hamburger Charlie”) Nagreen, who claimed to have invented the sandwich and its name at Seymour’s fair in the same annus mirabilis of 1885. Seymour recently defended its position in the most impressive manner. In the summer of 1989, according to Tom Duffey, president of Home of the Hamburger, Inc., “the citizens of Seymour cooked the world’s largest hamburger to commemorate the invention.” It weighed 5,520 pounds and fed thirteen thousand people.

But both Buffalo and Seymour are silent on a central issue in Furnas’s quest, which is the all-important question of when the bun replaced the sliced bread that Nagreen and the Menches would have used.

Light on this comes from Thomas C. Dolly, of Omaha, Nebraska, who describes himself as an “old-time drive-in operator” and who sent us a monograph he prepared on the growth of the hamburger chains. Dolly cites Walter Anderson, a Wichita, Kansas, diner operator who “invented the fast-food hamburger, which ultimately changed the eating habits of America and a sizable portion of the world.” In 1916 Anderson “found that by mashing a ball of ground beef flat and frying at high temperature [he] not only speeded up the cooking time, but vastly improved the flavor and texture as well.” Thus inspired, Anderson went on to invent the modern grill and finally talked a Wichita bakery into creating a special bun for him. On this foundation he built the White Castle chain.

Finally, David O. McCann of Fairfax, Virginia, though standing apart from the main controversy, offers information on an epochal refinement. “In 1964 Lionel Clark Sternberger, proprietor of the Rite Spot steakhouse in Los Angeles, died. A Time obit recalled that four decades earlier, at the tender age of sixteen, Lionel experimentally tossed a slice of cheese on a hamburger he was cooking at his father’s short-order shop in Pasadena, and lo! the cheeseburger sizzled to life.”

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