What Everyone Should Know About the Hamburger

One of the funniest scenes in recent movie history has got to be the scene in the remake of The Pink Panther where Steve Martin is trying to learn to speak English and keeps mangling the word “hamburger.” I’m not sure how many different variations of the word he ultimately says, but each seems to be funnier and farther away from the original than the next. The hamburger is an American fast food staple and may well be the single most consumed kind of sandwich in the world. But where did it come from?

Did Hamburgers Really Come from Hamburg, Germany?

While Hamburg, Germany certainly plays a major role in the story of the hamburger, it can’t take credit as the birthplace of the idea. The very first step in the making of the contemporary hamburger goes back to the warring tribes of Mongolian and Turkish descent who were battling for superiority in Russia. These warriors needed quick and easily sustainable energy and so they turned to the most plentiful supply of meat available: low quality Asian cattle. In order to ease the process through the digestive system, they found that if they shredded this uncooked beef it would result in less time spent squatting among the bushes. Referring back to the Greek afterlife of Tartarus, they deemed this meat tartar steak. Today one of the remnants of this food can be ordered in high class restaurants. It is called Steak Tartare and it costs significantly more than the lowly hamburger. This despite the fact that it’s still served raw. More evidence that you can convince rich people to buy anything.

Now We Get to Hamburg, Germany

This tartar steak eventually made its way from Russia to Germany late in the 13th century. While these Germans also occasionally ate it raw like their tartar precursors, they took two revolutionary steps that would eventually result in today’s hamburger as we know it. One, they began to cook it. And two, they started adding in certain spices. Because the source beef was still low quality, it quickly became a favorite of the lower classes and in Hamburg it eventually came to be known as Hamburg Steak.

So That’s Why It’s Called Salisbury Steak

All good things eventually get exported and the Hamburg Steak was no different. By the 19th century it had worked its way over to England where a doctor who was expressing the radical notion that shredded food could make digestion a bit easier was making a name for himself. Dr. J. H. Salisbury was not only a champion of shredded food in general, but shredded beef in particular. He believed that each person should consume beef at least thrice daily and then wash it down with a fine cup of hot water. Mm-mmm good! What did Salisbury do differently with Hamburg Steak to turn it into Salisbury Steak? Well, apparently nothing. You know how those Brit and Germans just never seem to get along? Well, Salisbury just wasn’t too keen on serving his followers a food with a German name so he simply changed the name.

What If We’d Built a Wall To Keep the German’s Out?

The massive immigration of Germans to America in the late 19th century finally brought Hamburg Steak to the land of the free. At first it was called hamburger steak, but that proved to be too much of a mouthful for we lazy Americans who love to shorten foreign names and sayings so eventually it became known as just hamburger. At the time it was still being eaten with bread on the side and the history of the hamburger really isn’t all the clear on just who it was that first slipped a patty between two buns. (Although rumor has it that Thomas Edison tried to claim that invention for himself as well, to go along with all the other stuff he never invented but owns the patent on.)

Meet Me in St. Louis-Louis, Meet Me At The Hamburger Stand

By the time of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, however, the hamburger as we know it today was pretty much standard fare. People were eating the cheap shredded beef between slices of bread and already starting to shorten hamburger down to hamburg. The real story here is that St. Louis is known for its huge arch that represents the gateway to the Pacific and now most of us associated the Golden Arches of McDonald’s with the hamburger. But the real reason that the hamburger is so popular in America isn’t due to McDonald’s. For several decades before McDonald’s became the quintessential hamburger joint, White Castle had been popularizing the sandwich. In fact, it’s a good bet that if White Castle hadn’t been such a success that Ray Kroc would never have bought out the little McDonald brother’s franchise and it would be at best a regional brand name like White Castle is today.

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