A Brief History of: The Beef Burger
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All over the world, from hole-in-the-wall establishments to fast food drive-thrus, gastro pubs and fancy, fine-dining restaurants, the humble beef burger has become a staple on any menu. In many cases, the whole menu is the beef burger in one form or another. McDonald’s sells 75 of the things every single second. So, how did this all come about? Why has the beef burger become so popular?
To understand its origins, we have to travel as far back as Ancient Rome in 1 AD. Within the Apicius – a cookbook that showcases a collection of ancient Roman recipes – there is evidence of beef preparation known as ‘Isicia Omentata’. In this process, beef was mixed with pine kernels, black and green peppercorns, and white wine. It was served as a baked patty – the very first beef burger? Perhaps.
Throughout history, there are other tales and glimpses of cultures that made use of the beef patty. For example, take the Mongols – fierce horseman warriors who conquered most of Eurasia throughout the 13th century AD. And what was tucked under their saddles? Thick slabs of beef, perfect for dinner after being tenderized by a day of riding!
However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the beef burger as we know today really started to make its appearance. In the aptly named city of Hamburg, Germany, high quality beef was minced and combined with garlic, onions, salt and pepper, before being formed into patties. This made what were known as ‘Hamburg steaks’ or ‘Frikadelle’, as they’re known in Germany. They were not served between a bread bun and were considered quite gourmet and pricey.
During the first half of the 19th century, millions of emigrants began to make their way across the Atlantic from Europe to America. For many, the port they departed from was Hamburg and the port they arrived in was New York. Many of the German immigrants arriving in New York set up successful restaurants where they offered ‘Hamburg-style American fillet’ or ‘beefsteak à la Hambourgeoise’. The American preparation of mince beef came directly from the need to fit the taste of the millions of arriving European immigrants.
And then, as the industrial revolution was in full swing, factory workers began to be served Hamburg steak from food carts. These proved difficult to eat whilst standing around and so, the story goes, one cook decided to sandwich the meat patty between two slices of bread and voilà! The beef burger as we know and love it today was born.
Some of you may be having a moment of deja vu here. You’d be forgiven for thinking this story sounds all too familiar. It seems remarkably close to the series of events that gave birth to Currywurst in Berlin several decades later! Indeed, there are a number of other conflicting stories that all lay claim to the origin of the beef burger.
For example, in 1885 at Erie County Fair, New York, there were a number of dubious claims that ‘The Menches Brothers’ ran out of pork sausages. As a quick fix, they began stuffing beef into a sandwich instead, thus creating the burger. In the same year, at the Seymour Fair in Wisconsin, Charlie Nagreen (often known as ‘Hamburger Charlie’) is said to have squashed a beef meatball down between two slices of bread so that his customers could walk around whilst eating – a story very similar to that of the factory workers.
Whilst the exact origins of the beef burger may never be known, a few things are clear. All claims for the invention of the modern beef burger sit between 1885 and 1904, meaning that it’s very likely the beef burger did indeed surface during these two decades. Furthermore, there are a few common elements in all of the stories. It’s pretty clear that the beef burger was born as a food associated with major events such as amusement parks, fairs, conferences and festivals where there was always the presence of street vendors.
The rest is history, as they say. The beef burger stormed to immense popularity throughout the 20th century, becoming an iconic staple of American cuisine. At the start of the 20th century, there was a need to provide food for people living within the huge cities and urban sprawls all across the USA. On top of this, food also had to be cheap and affordable enough for the working class. Without it, how could America ever hope to maintain its labour and industrial production? So, the beef burger was born at just the right moment in history when people needed to eat both fast and cheap.
The fast-food giants such as McDondald’s began their lives by plugging in to those needs, revolutionising the food industry in terms of production and preservation. Through mass-production, it’s easy nature and a healthy dose of pop culture, the beef burger has since spread all over the world. It’s almost a guarantee that in every large town or city around the world, there is at least one establishment with a beef burger on the menu.
In places like America and Europe, there are now so many variants and choices it’s hard to keep up. We’re sure that as you read this, your mind is cast back to the last time you surveyed a menu and struggled to choose one out of the seven or eight options available! From the classic beef burger to the double stack, the bacon, the onion rings, the fried eggs, the weird curry version nobody asked for, the vegetarian option, the chicken alternative, the doughnuts-instead-of-bread-buns (yes, really), there’s something for everyone. The beef burger is going nowhere.
If, like us, you don’t enjoy the struggle of so much choice, why not stay at home and make your very own beef burgers? We’ve cooked up a recipe for some spicy burgers, making good use of our smoked paprika and ground cayenne chillies. Check it out here. We’ve thrown in some sweet potato fries for good measure too!