Speaking of hamburgers, which I was (specifically, hucking them across continents), are you aware just how close we came to going out for “tartars and fries”?
The Tartars (or Tatars) are an ethnic group found around Russia, descendants of Mongolians, who were once at the leading edge of finely chopped meat. The legacy remains in the modern day steak tartare, which is basically a mound of raw ground beef, though the fancy French restaurants make it sound more… how do you say… edible.
While the recipe of ground beef, minced onions, and seasoning stayed much the same, after making it to the port town of Hamburg, Germany they started to cook it. It was from here that the Hamburg steak, as it came to be known, spread across the world in the 1800s.
Side note: the Salisbury steak is pretty much identical to a Hamburg steak, but named after Dr. James Salisbury who promoted eating meat three times a day, and limiting vegetables, fruits and starchy foods.
A little earlier, mid 1700s, it was John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, asked for some meat tucked between two pieces of bread. He just wanted to be able to eat conveniently while working or playing cards. As such, the sandwich was born.
The two met up on American soil but the exact location is hotly contested. Grasping for any claim to fame there are three US states that have legislation to decree the birth of the hamburger, or more accurately, the Hamburg steak sandwich, happened inside their borders.
The two oldest claims date to 1885, and both share the story of a food vendor at a county fair. In one case a meatball vendor squashed his product flat and served it in bread so it became more portable. It was a hit. The other story is about running out of pork for sausage patty sandwiches on a busy day, and improvising a new recipe using ground beef. That too was a hit.
The second guy also claimed to have created the word “hamburger” not based on the Hamburg steak but rather that the fateful day occurred at the fair in Hamburg, New York. To me, that sounds a little too convenient.
The meatball guy dished up his sandwiches every year and came to be known as Hamburger Charlie. He even had a song and dance routine:
Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers hot; onions in the middle, pickle on top. Makes your lips go flippity flop.
Another story argues the technicality that those both put a Hamburg steak between slices of bread, but the true hamburger was born when it was first placed on a bun. If you buy that, then credit is due to Grandpa Oscar Bilby of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The way his family tells the story of his first annual July 4th BBQ you’d think the man came down from the mountain with his holy grill.
Of course, Texas has its own version of the hamburger creation story, too. It probably wasn’t the first, but it did have the biggest effect when Fletch David took his sandwich on the road. The hamburger hit the big time as a favourite dish at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. And we lived fattily ever after.