Hamburger history: Why is it called a hamburger if it's not ham?
We know. It’s the question that keeps you awake at night. The one that jerks you out of a peaceful dream and into a cold sweat. The one that lurks at the back of your mind and makes it impossible to get any work done. Why is a hamburger called a hamburger…if there’s no ham? Don’t worry. We’re on it. We found out the hamburger origin story, so you can finally move on with your life.
Where it all began
The exact origin of the hamburger is unknown – probably because everyone was too busy eating to remember to write anything down – but the most popular hamburger origin story is that it is named for the German city of Hamburg, and first emerged in the 18th or 19th Century. Some hamburger historians trace its origins back to Hannah Glasse’s 1758 cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which includes a recipe for a Hamburg Sausage, to be served on toasted bread. Another possible predecessor is the Rundstück Warm, which was a bread roll stuffed with steak.
Because there is no definitive way to know who really invented the hamburger, many different chefs have laid claim to it (after all, who doesn’t want to be the guy who invented the hamburger?). Despite the German etymology, many of these chefs are North Americans, with perhaps the most famous being Charlie Nagreen. In fact, he’s so well known for his claim that he is often referred to as “Hamburger Charlie”.
Nagreen debuted his “American Hamburger” at a state fair in his native Wisconsin in 1885. Legend has it that he started his catering career as a meatball salesman, but found that people walking around fairs didn’t have the time to stop and eat. Thinking on his feet, Nagreen sandwiched his meatballs between two slices of bread so that people could take it on the go, and suddenly, his success changed.
While the people of Wisconsin had enough faith in Charlie’s story to build a statue in his honor, there are plenty of other claimants to the title of “Hamburger Inventor”. New Yorkers Frank and Charles Menches have a similar story to Nagreen, claiming to have sold a ground beef sandwich at a state fair in 1885. They claim that they named the food for Hamburg, New York rather than Hamburg, Germany. For a long time, Texan caterer Fletcher Davis was considered the likely originator of the dish, but the evidence of his hamburger stand in 1904 is even pre-dated by the first dictionary entry of the word hamburger, which was in 1884.
Interestingly, the original cheeseburger (another hotly contested topic) is widely thought to have been invented in 1926 by Lionel Sternberger – which suggests that it took a full 42 years before anyone thought of melting cheese onto their food.
What’s in a Name?
So, if the hamburger might have been invented in America, why is it named after a German city? Well, to make things even more complicated, popular opinion has it that it’s because of Asians. Many accounts recall that Germans who travelled to Asia in the 18th Century discovered that locals would soften their meat by placing it on their saddles when they rode. Taken by the texture of softened meat, they brought the recipe back home to Hamburg, and then later, to America, where they introduced it as Hamburg meat. This also explains why hamburgers are not actually made from ham meat: they’re made from Hamburg meat.
However, it came to be that the humble hamburger has undoubtedly become one of the world’s most famous foods. The first fast-food hamburger chain, White Castle, opened in 1921, and is still going to this day. There’s even a whole day dedicated to burgers (July 28, in case you were wondering) as well as a Hamburger Hall of Fame in Nagreen’s home state of Wisconsin. Today, burgers account for 40% of all sandwiches sold, and probably about 90% of all joy.
And while we can’t know for sure whether the United States of America can really lay claim to the first ever hamburger, we can say that they created the biggest. The world record holder for largest burger is the Black Bear Casino Resort in Minnesota, which made a 10-foot, 2,014 lb. burger, complete with all the trimmings. This is perhaps our favourite fact, because it really puts ordering double burgers via Uber Eats tonight into perspective, don’t you think?