The Backstory of the Burger

Tracing the history of the hamburger

From the dawn of the Baby Boomer right up until today, there has always been a hamburger on the American menu.

It’s the go-to casual lunch item. It’s an easy-eatin’, patio-dining staple. Anybody can make one and every menu offers one. Nobody doesn’t like a hamburger, it seems—at least until the meat-free lifestyle became a thing. Since the launch of McDonald’s and Burger King in the 1950s there have been hamburger joints all over the planet. McDonald’s sells 75 hamburgers per second, according to a Parade magazine article published six years ago (which means that number has probably quintupled by now). Ergo the hamburger is a big, big deal.

If you just dropped in from Mars and want a big, juicy, classic burger, almost any restaurant in Marin County will comply.

Theresa and Johnny’s Comfort Food in downtown San Rafael includes hamburgers among its lunch offerings. Perry’s, a small Bay Area chain with a location in Larkspur, has a specialty burger, and, if you’re feeling fancy, the Buckeye Roadhouse, an 83-year-old Mill Valley institution, serves up a specialty wood-grilled Wagyu burger at dinnertime.

It’s as simple as serving a grilled patty of ground beef on a bun with tomato, lettuce, onions, pickles and condiments that include ketchup, mayo and mustard. So popular is the entire concept of the hamburger that the 21st century of diversity dining has even spawned a vegetarian doppelgänger called the Impossible Burger. In retrospect it seems inevitable that those desiring a burger, but without the meat, would devise a way to turn soy protein into something to satisfy that craving. That the hamburger is a popular, ubiquitous item on mainstream menus and on many home dining tables cannot be questioned.

So where did burgers come from, and why do we love them so much?

The first question leads into the murky zone of meta-history, which lies very close to urban mythology and fake news. Let’s see if we can trace origins through the name itself. No, there isn’t ham in a hamburger. Yes, there is a town in Northern Germany named Hamburg, where people have loved meat in many forms for a long time.

In the 18th century there was something called the Hamburg steak, made from minced beef, mixed with some seasonings and formed into patties, served with onions and capers. The Hamburg steak might trace its ancestry to Genghis Khan and his buddies who invaded Russia and introduced minced meat, a version of steak tartare, to what is now Germany. Hamburg was one of those port towns doing a brisk trade with Russia and steak tartare quickly morphed into the Hamburg steak.

Sounds close, right? But someone had to finish the equation. That someone might have been a German immigrant, arriving in New York and opening a restaurant. Doing what they knew best, they might have started offering Hamburg steaks on their menu (sort of a German cousin to the very similar Salisbury steak, which many might recall from the old-school, foil-wrapped, 20th-century TV dinner). The Salisbury steak also involved minced or ground beef but included gravy. There is no gravy on a Hamburg steak.

As early as 1876, Delmonico’s in New York offered a Hamburg steak on its menu. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, published in 1844, included a recipe for Broiled Meat Cakes, which involved chopping lean, raw beef into a fine mince, shaping it into small flat cakes and broiling it. What was lacking was the bun, allowing a person to easily eat the meat patty while standing, walking or picnicking on their lunch break and later, in a car.

Once liberated from its original identity issue—trying to be a steak—the hamburger came into its own as a ground beef patty, usually fried or grilled into submission, placed between toasted halves of a bun and consumed with French fries or onion rings. (Okay, and/or potato chips.)

The Bilby Family of Tulsa, Oklahoma, claims to be the first to put a hamburger on a bun before serving. Surely it didn’t take long for folks to realize that a hot slab of beef can wreak havoc with slices of bread. Bread didn’t have the staying power—the gravitas, if you will—to contain the burger with its hot juices. It was probably the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 (see Vincent Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, for reference), that put the hamburger as we know it on the U.S. map.

Marin County has plenty of eateries named for burgers—Phyllis’ Giant Burgers, Hamburgers Sausalito and the Napa Valley Burger Company among them. Fast-food specialists such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King aside, Marin County burger joints, diners and sports bars offer plenty of options.

And the ante continues to rise: Instead of mere buns, there are now brioche buns. Instead of ground chuck, there’s grass-fed, free-range Wagyu. Condiments continue to evolve: organic caramelized onions, guacamole, sauteed mushrooms, housemade pickles, Jarlsberg cheese, feta sriracha mayo and sugar-cured bacon.

In that vein, The Counter in Corte Madera offers custom burgers with options including chicken, turkey, beef and vegan patties. The State Room, a brewery and kitchen combo in San Rafael, has a namesake burger, the State Room Burger. Optional additions to the Prather Ranch beef patty include pork belly, avocado mash and melted IPA onions.

Yes, the burger has come a long way from the days of Genghis Khan and his steak tartare–loving hordes. However you like them, Impossible or 100 percent grass-fed, they are a delicious fixture of American dining.

So, why do we love the hamburger? Maybe because it’s gooey, hot, delicious, loaded with unctuous flavor and involves all the flavor groups except sugar. 

But we probably love the hamburger because we can.

By Christina Waters

Pacific Sun
The Pacific Sun publishes every Wednesday, delivering 21,000 copies to 520 locations throughout Marin County.
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