A History of the Burger: From Ancient Rome to the Drive-Thru
2,000 years of fast food history from The World is Your Burger, a new book celebrating the American icon.
There’s no denying that the hamburger occupies a unique place in the American mind. What other food conjures so many themes, stands for so many global forces as this iconic sandwich? Convenience, mass-production, globalization, capitalism, American exceptionalism—not to mention meat (lots of juicy, perfectly grilled meat).
The World is Your Burger: A Cultural History, a new book by David Michaels out now from Phaidon, conducts a deep dive into the development of the burger both as a food and as an idea. Michaels—a hospitality industry alum and owner of Bite Me Burger in Sydney—collects recipes, vintage photos and chef dispatches in his beautifully designed tome. One of our favorite sections is his meticulously researched burger timeline, which traces its journey from ground meat product to international idol.
1st Century AD: Rome
- The first stirrings of what came to resemble a hamburger, this ground- (minced-) meat dish contained pine nuts, pepper, and flavorings of wine and garum.
13th Century AD: The Steppes
- The Mongols were fierce horsemen who conquered most of Eurasia with thick slabs of beef tucked under their saddles, eaten after being tenderized by a day’s riding.
- Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery is published, describing this smoked sausage of ground (minced) beef, suet, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, garlic, vinegar, salt, red wine, and rum, to be served on toast.
The Oxford English Dictionary
- The English language’s foremost lexicon describes Hamburg steak as “a hard slab of salted, minced [ground] beef, often slightly smoked, mixed with onions and breadcrumbs.”
The Meat Grinder
- G. A. Coffman created and patented his Machine for Cutting Sausage-Meat, which featured rotating blades under a spiral feeder, akin to modern meat grinders (mincers).
1885: Erie County Fair, New York
The Menches Brothers
- There are dubious and conflicting claims that at this fair in New York State the brothers ran out of pork sausages and so put beef into a sandwich, thereby creating a burger.
1885: Seymour Fair, Wisconsin
- Nagreen, affectionately known as “Hamburger Charlie,” apparently squashed a beef meatball between slices of bread so his customers could walk around eating—a concoction he claimed was the first hamburger.
1891: Bowden, Oklahoma
Oscar Weber Wilby
- The first documented appearance of flame-grilled beef patties in a sourdough bun, created by Bilby and his wife Fanny to celebrate the Fourth of July.
1900: New Haven, Connecticut
- The United States Library of Congress credits Lassen with creating the first hamburger, but doubt remains, as his beef patty was served between two slices of toast rather than the bun that the true burger demands.
1904: St. Louis World’s Fair, Missouri
- Davis claimed to have been serving beef in sandwiches since the 1880s and to have sold out of his “hamburgers” at this world-famous exhibition.
1906: Chicago, Illinois
- Upton Sinclair’s novel about the meat-packing industry led many Americans to distrust the quality of ground (minced) beef, even though that was not Sinclair’s aim at all.
1916: Wichita, Kansas
- Anderson, one of the two geniuses behind White Castle, originally started trading from a food cart, serving burgers with specifically created buns and using his own handmade spatula.
1921: Wichita, Kansas
- Cook Walter Anderson and entrepreneur Billy Ingram opened their first restaurant and changed the course of hamburger history, with innovations in design, cooking, and serving.
1925: Pasadena, California
The Cheese Hamburger
- Lionel Sternberger, running his father’s diner, The Rite Spot, claimed to be the first man to put cheese over a patty in a bun, which he called a Cheese Hamburger.
Fleischer Studios, 1931
- The New York-based animation house created the famous hamburger-eating comic character J. Wellington Wimpy for the Popeye series; the restaurant was later named after him.
Louisville, Kentucky, 1934
“A New Tang”
- That was how Kaelin’s Restaurant described the taste when they melted cheese over patties, which they claimed to be the first proper cheeseburger.
1935: Denver, Colorado
- Louis Ballast submitted a trademark for “The Cheeseburger” for his now defunct Humpty Dumpty Drive-In, though historians query whether he received it.
1937: Glendale, California
The Big Boy
- Bob Wian founded Bob’s Pantry in 1936 and within a year had gone for broke, slicing a bun into three and using two patties to create the first double-decker burger.
1948: San Bernardino, California
- Though the McDonald brothers had run a barbecue shack since 1940, in 1948 they switched to hamburgers and started what became the largest fast-food chain in the world.
1954: Miami, Florida
- David Edgerton and James McLamore purchased the floundering Insta-Burger King and renamed it, creating the biggest challenger to McDonald’s fast-food crown.
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- J. Lyons and Co. bought franchise rights to run Wimpy burger bars in England and opened their first as a concession in a Lyons Corner House restaurant on Coventry Street in Central London.
1955: Des Plaines, Illinois
- Ray Kroc, erstwhile milkshake-machine salesman, joined the McDonald brothers before eventually buying them out and transforming the brand into a global phenomenon.
1967: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Big Mac
- Though it wasn’t introduced nationwide until a year later, 1967 saw the invention by Jim Delligatti of what has become one of McDonald’s signature items, the Big Mac.
1969: Columbus, Ohio
- For a long time the third-biggest hamburger retailer in the world, Wendy’s was a later starter when created by former Kentucky Fried Chicken head chef Dave Thomas.
Reprinted with permission from The World is Your Burger: A Cultural History by David Michaels, $39.95 at phaidon.com