Hamburgers: A History


Memorial Day has come and gone, your grill is now outside and awaiting a busy season of outdoor cooking, and it's the perfect time to throw burgers on the grill and cook up some supper. Is anything more iconically American (except for apple pie) than burgers?

Except that maybe they aren't even American.

The earliest mention of Hamburg-style American fillet was dated mid-1800s in New York menus, but the predecessor, isicia omentata, appeared in Italian cookbooks as early as the 300s. Beef was mixed with wine, peppercorns, and pine kernels, then baked.

Then in the 1100s, the Mongol army came up with a technique of wrapping meat and placing it under their saddles as they rode. The heat partially cooked and completely minced the meat, and made eating on the run simple and efficient.

This minced meat became known as steak tartare and was common fare for the Mongol army and the Mongol empire (including Germany). Mention of steak tartare occurred off and on throughout the years until 1763, when a German cookbook made mention of "Hamburgh Sausage," a meal which included minced meat with spices and served on toast.

This meat was minced by hand, making it time-consuming and expensive. But with the advent of the meat-grinder in the nineteenth century, Hamburgh Sausage became much more common.

The port at Hamburg, Germany, was a common port for those departing for the New World, usually bound for New York City. Due to immigrant influence, restaurants in New York began to sell and promote Hamburg-style American fillets, or--more commonly--Hamburger steaks. If we were served one of these today, we would probably turn up our noses. They were either raw patties or very lightly cooked with a side of raw egg. The ease of making this dish led to its popularity--it was so popular that it was even served as a breakfast item.

Somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, the hamburger as we know it (the most notable change being that it was fully cooked) came into existence, but the exact time and place is a bit murky. Naturally, everyone wants the credit for this American staple.

In honor of National Hamburger Day and the advent of grilling season, fire up the grill and fix yourself an American (or Un-American?) meal.

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