From Minced Meat to McDonalds — The History of the Hamburger

The Fourth of July is upon us – and even though the day is almost over where I am, the barbecues, fireworks, beach trips, and summer fun is still abuzz because Independence Day is on a Friday this year and people are taking advantage of it by extending it to cover the entire weekend. Not that I mind. Celebrating a holiday or a birthday from Friday to Sunday is a lot more fun than celebrating it during the weekday – especially if you have obligations during the week (work, school, or family).

Last year, my Independence Day blog post was about the history of the barbecue and how America has four types of barbecues: Carolina (North and South), Memphis (Tennessee), Kansas City (Missouri), and Texas. This year, I thought I might touch on hamburgers: their origins, how America popularized them, and whether or not the burger is still relevant in a world where people are watching their waistlines and opting for healthier alternatives.

What can be said about the hamburger that hasn’t been said in other food blogs, food magazines, cookbooks, and fast food advertisement? It’s been touted as the perfect food: ground beef (or turkey, or chicken, or chickpeas and black beans, if you want to go vegetarian), seasoned to your liking, mixed with egg, formed into a patty, fried on a griddle or put on a grill (ideally, a propane one, if you’re like Hank Hill), but will settle for being pan-fried or put on a charcoal grill, and either served as is or topped anything from ketchup, cheese, mustard, pickles, relish, bacon, and/or onions (raw or fried) to grilled fruits (usually pineapple), fried eggs, or any kind of fruit-flavored chutney.

But the hamburger is more than just a sandwich; it’s an American culinary icon, much like fried chicken (yes, fried chicken. The old stereotype of African Americans loving it confuses me as white people love fried chicken just as much) and apple pie. In fact, the hamburger is a lot like American history/society: filled with conflicting stories on its origins, can be very cheesy and disgusting to non-American sensibilities (yet most people do want a taste of it just to see if it’s everything they dreamed it would be), known and praised/disparaged all over the world, and associated with wanting everything done fast rather than done right.

Origins

In the 12th century, the nomadic Mongols, led by Genghis Khan  (1167–1227), carried food made up of several varieties of milk and meat (horse or camel) shaped into patties during their journeys. This was to not only extend their supply of meat, but also as a quick way to eat as they were laying waste to and conquering what is now Central Asia (Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, specifically). In the height of the Mongol Empire, it was common to see Mongol warriors following herds or flocks of horses, sheep, or oxen and killing them for food. The explorer Marco Polo recorded these sightings, even pointing out that a single pony could feed 100 Mongol invaders.

Now there’s an idea for the final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

This recipe for the minced meat patty was passed on the Muscovites when Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, invaded Russia after the Mongol Empire fell in the 1240s. In Moscow, the patty was known as steak tartare (yet the recipe for it was never recorded and, to this day, no one knows when the recipe was first recorded for restaurant use). In the city-states that would later be known as Germany, this ground meat product was refined by adding capers, onions and even caviar to the blend and was sold on the streets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This is the part where the ground meat patty gets called a hamburger because it was created in what would later be the German city of Hamburg.”

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t called the “hamburger” right away. It was called the Hamburgh (that’s how the city name was spelled at the time) Sausage. Besides, the sandwich (and the use of bread slices between a meat filling) wouldn’t be known until the 18th century, thanks to English aristocrat John Montagu (better known as The Earl of Sandwich), who came up with a new way to eat so his fingers wouldn’t get dirty while playing card games. There was an episode of the early 2000s Cartoon Network show, Time Squad, that parodied how The Earl of Sandwich came up with this culinary sensation. I uploaded the episode and the storyboards for it for anyone who wants to see it.

Fast forward to the 19th century, which sees Hamburg, Germany as the largest trans-Atlantic hub for freight and shipping. The Hamburg steak, an early ancestor of the hamburger and known at that time as either “Hamburg-style American fillet” or “beefsteak à Hambourgeoise,” is being served to attract German sailors. It was brought back to New York City and became popular on the menus of many restaurants in this U.S. port. This kind of fillet was beef minced by hand, lightly salted and often smoked, and usually served raw in a dish along with onions and bread crumbs.

Now this isn’t the hamburger as we know it yet. It’s actually Salisbury steak, named after American physician and food faddist, Dr. James Salisbury (1823-1905), served with brown gravy, and is a common sight in many an unappetizing frozen TV dinner or mediocre school cafeteria menu. However, it does go great with buttered noodles and your choice of green bean casserole or vegetable medley.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of conflicting stories about how the hamburger came to be. Did the Hamburg America Line in Germany send it over to America? Was it a spontaneous invention by an American? If so, who invented it/made it popular first? Fletcher Davis? The Menches Brothers? Charlie Nagreen? Oscar Bilby? Or Louis Lassen? No one knows for sure, but these facts are certain:

1) The hamburg steak/Salisbury steak’s popularity in America is what led to the popularity of the hamburger,

2) The hamburger is very much a late 19th century-into-the 20th century invention, so the hamburger (and all the other types of burgers derived from it) is fairly new

3) all claims made by the potential inventors of the hamburger occurred between 1885 and 1904, focusing all attention of its creation onto these two decades.

The Hamburger Restaurant

Contemporary American society at the dawn of the 20th century witnessed the creation of new fast food originating from traditional foods from various ethnic groups, such as China’s chop suey (and other take-out favorites that originally were supposed to be for other Chinese immigrants who moved to America, but became popular among those who weren’t Chinese, but were American), pizza from Italy (though that would not gain popularity until after World War II), and hot dogs (invented by German immigrant Charles Feltman, who sold frankfurters on sliced bread at Coney Island).

The dawn of the 20th century also witnessed the need to provide food for people living in highly productive urban centers with high population densities. Food also had to be economically affordable for the working class so they can maintain their labor and industrial production. The hamburger and its derivatives were born in a time when people didn’t have the time or energy to make anything to eat and would rather eat “fast” and “cheap,” a decision that has stuck with the American way of life to this day.

Though there have been plenty of arguments and claims to the contrary, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut has been credited by The Library of Congress as the very first burger joint. Lassen may have made the hamburger popular in 1895, but it wouldn’t be until 1916 when the hamburger patty (actually, a Salisbury steak patty, thanks to anti-German sentiment during and after World War I) would be served on a bun. For that, you can thank Walter Anderson, who, five years after he invented the burger bun, co-founded one of the earliest hamburger restaurants in America: White Castle. You can also thank White Castle for selling their hamburgers in grocery stores and vending machines, creating the industrial-strength spatula, mass-producing the humiliating paper hat associated with the embarrassing task of working fast-food service, and for birthing the concept of a “greasy spoon restaurant,” in which hygiene suffered in exchange for more inexpensive food (though that’s more the fault of wanting things done fast instead of right).

Like anything remotely successful, White Castle bred a lot of imitators and attempts at capturing the restaurant’s success, with little to no success. One of the most obvious was White Tower Hamburgers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose owners got into many a legal battle with White Castle over copyright infringement.

1937 saw Patrick McDonald and his two sons Richard and Maurice inaugurating a restaurant called “Airdrome” on Route 66 near the airport in Monrovia, California. Three years later in San Bernardino, Papa McDonald and his sons would go on to create the insanely popular restaurant people in America and the world over: McDonalds. The menu initially featured 25 different dishes, the majority of which were barbecued, but 80% of the restaurant’s revenue was made from selling hamburgers. It wouldn’t be until after World War II (due to beef shortages, though that didn’t slow down White Castle) that McDonalds’ popularity would soar, introducing the concept of fast food to the West Coast, working to improve on all of the things White Castle and other restaurants were doing to ensure the fastest service possible, and inventing the concept of “drive thru” ordering. By the 1950s, the concept of drive-in style service had become firmly established and hamburgers and cars had become closely connected in the minds of many Americans, particularly among the teenagers at that time, if pop culture and pointless nostalgia of the era has taught me anything.

As private outdoor social events, often held in backyards and featuring a barbecue, became more widespread during the mid-1950s, the hamburger gained a new culinary and social relevance in America. It became that national symbol that separated the United States from those godless Reds who waited with baited breath to invade the country. It seems silly, but for anyone who still has relatives who lived during that era, it was a reality. You know the hamburger was a popular American symbol during the Cold War when one of the battles in the Vietnam War is named The Battle of Hamburger Hill, because of how the Viet Cong and American soldiers alike were reduced to bloody meat. War is hell, kids.

There was also another war being waged during The Cold War (mostly during the 1960s and 1970s), and that was “The Burger War,” in which McDonalds fought with Burger King and Wendy’s over who had the better hamburger. No lives were lost nor soldiers injured (unless you count the many who have had heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes from all that burger-noshing), but it did cause the prices of their burgers increased, and the days when a hamburger could be bought for just a few cents (a nickel at most) were a thing of the past.

Where Are We Now?

Now, we’re in the era of everyone watching their waistlines and cutting down on the junk so they can live longer to complain about how life isn’t what it used to be. The hamburger, while still being celebrated with haute cuisine makeovers and being positively to neutrally portrayed on such TV shows and movies as Good Burger, SpongeBob SquarePants (with the titular character working at The Krabby Patty), American Eats, Man vs. Food, Bob’s Burgers, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, has also come under fire for lack of nutritional value and being one of a myriad of causes in the obesity epidemic. There are also environmentalists and animal rights activists protesting on how the big-chain restaurants are killing people with mediocre meat and slashing rainforests for more cattle-raising room.

“All this for a meat patty between two pieces of bread?” you ask. “All of this protesting and change and competition. It’s silly.” To that I say, “Yeah, it’s silly, but when you really think about it, it’s American.”

Thanks, and happy eating.

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Operation Thanksgiving: The Leftover(s) Post

With Thanksgiving three weeks behind and Christmas almost a week away, you may be wondering why a Thanksgiving leftover blog post should be published this soon?

Well, to get a head start on post-Thanksgiving leftovers for 2014, and because I only have two recipes that individually takes three Thanksgiving dishes (namely the turkey, the homemade cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes) and recreates them into something you can make any time of the year.

Turkey/Homemade Cranberry Sauce: Turkey and cranberry sauce quesadilla

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Quesadillas are not a new thing for me. I’ve had them since college, both made by me and bought from Qdoba and several San Francisco food trucks (Food trucks are a bigger deal in the West Coast than the East, though Philly is starting to get into it). I’ve had both meat and vegetarian takes on it, and I like them both.

For those who don’t know, a quesadilla is a corn or flour tortilla filled with cheese and some kind of savory mixture (meat, vegetables, refried beans, mostly) either folded in half to form a half-moon shape when cut or sandwiched between two tortillas and cut into wedges after it’s been pan-cooked, griddled, or panini-pressed. The latter way of preparing it (sandwiched between two tortillas) is actually referred to as a sincronizada outside of Mexico, so if you’re an American tourist in Mexico, don’t get mad or confused if you see them prepare a quesadilla this way (as seen in this video): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/5/5a/Quesadilla.webm/Quesadilla.webm.480p.webm.

Another difference between a Mexican quesadilla and an American one is in the ingredients, especially the type of cheese used. In Mexico (particularly the central and southern areas; northern Mexico tends to use queso fresco and wheat flour tortillas for their quesadillas), queso Oaxaca (a stringy, mozzarella-esque cheese from the Mexican state of Oaxaca) is the cheese of choice in this dish (in America, it’s usually Colby Jack, that shredded “Mexican cheese blend” you see in stores [which is really just Monterey Jack and cheddar mixed], or mozzarella).

As for savory fillings, you get beef, chicken, and pork, same as in the States, but real Mexican quesadillas use such ingredients as chorizo (a type of spicy pork sausage; I made this in garde manger class during the week when I worked on forcemeats, pâtés, terrines in aspic — you know, the kind of disgusting foods that a lot of 1950s to 1970s home cookbooks have. It’s very weird that I actually know what they are and how to prepare them in a day and age when only children of 1970s parents and people who read James Lileks’ website and books would know what a savory gelatin dish is), huitlacoche (corn smut. Yes, it sounds like pornography that would exclusively be made in Nebraska, but corn smut is a type of pathogenic fungus that’s considered a delicacy in Mexico), and chicharrón (a meat dish that can best be described as “pork rinds made from scratch,” though some Central American places and places like The Philippines [which was under Spanish rule], beef and chicken is substituted).

This recipe I have for a turkey quesadilla uses ground turkey that you can cook like ground beef, but if you have leftover turkey from any occasion, you can just rip up the meat and sauté that in with the other ingredients.

All credit goes to Closet Cooking

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 (8 inch) flour tortillas
  • ½ cup shredded cheese (a Monterey Jack/Colby blend is preferred, but you can substitute with whatever semi-soft or hard cheese you like)
  • ¼ pound turkey, cooked, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons cranberry sauce (I prefer the homemade cranberry relish I discussed in the previous “Operation: Thanksgiving” entry)
  • ½ jalapeno, finely diced (optional: I’m not a fan of jalapenos, but you might be)
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 1 handful cilantro, chopped (also optional, as not everyone likes cilantro)

Directions

  1. Heat a pan over medium heat, place one tortilla in and top with the half of the cheese followed by the turkey, cranberry sauce, jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and the remaining cheese and tortilla (if you’re doing the folded quesadilla with just one tortilla, then you need to place the filling on one side of the tortilla, then fold the bare side over the filled side).
  2. Cook the quesadilla until golden brown and the cheese is melted, about 2-4 minutes.

Mashed Potatoes: Gnocchi

I made gnocchi (pronounced nyo-KEY) once in my life, and that was in Chef Will’s International Cuisine/Bistro class when I was in California. It was during the two weeks we learned true Italian cooking. You’d think I’d learn at least something from that, since I have a great-grandmother who was one-quarter Italian and the Italian cooking bug lives on in my mother. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Making pasta like a true Italian grandmother (despite that I’m in my late-20s as of this writing. Hey, you’re never too young to cook like an Italian, Jewish, Greek, or Eastern European mother or grandmother, even if those ethnicities aren’t in your family tree) is something on which I still need to work — and that’s with and without the pasta maker. I’m not saying I stink, but there is room for improvement, as far as making pasta dough is concerned (though I do pride myself in making noodles out of kreplach dough to add in Jewish chicken soup. I did it because I felt like having chicken soup with noodles in it and the cafeteria wasn’t serving it).

Gnocchi is no exception. Gnocchi is a lot like any recipe, but especially like soufflé, in that just about anything can go wrong. They can fall apart like cheap jeans in a washing machine. They can taste doughy and soggy. They can have a heavy mouthfeel. That’s a lot to run through your mind while preparing this, but let me put you at ease at what you can do to avoid crummy gnocchi:

1)      Use starchy potatoes. Russets (the Idaho potatoes) are ideal. If your mashed potatoes were made with Russets, then you’re good to go.

2)      Try not to use too much or too little flour. Too much makes the gnocchi heavy and too little doesn’t make a strong enough dough.

3)      Use enough beaten egg to act as a binder (a quarter cup and nothing more)

4)      Ideally, egg isn’t needed in a true gnocchi recipe, but an eggless gnocchi recipe is very tricky to handle. Unless you’re experienced at making eggless gnocchi or you’re serving someone who doesn’t like or is allergic to eggs (eggs are considered one of the most common foods people are allergic to, next to peanuts, milk, any tree nut [walnuts, cashews, pecans, etc], soy, wheat/gluten products, and edible crustaceans), then stick with step three.

5)      Gnocchi is supposed to have a delicate, light mouthfeel to it – and that includes when you fry it. Yes, you can fry gnocchi. My International Cuisine teacher was disappointed in me when I decided to cook it up traditionally (boiled and cooked in tomato sauce) rather than fry it – not because he’s into fried food, but because he personally feels gnocchi is enjoyed better fried. And, after tasting a fried piece from a girl in my class (I think her name was Dahlia), I agree. Fried gnocchi tastes like tater tots, only less greasy. And that is a compliment. I know pairing something refined like gnocchi to something blue-collar like tater tots is a foodie taboo of some kind, but that’s the hazard that comes with opening your mouth to everything from pre-made to homemade.

Here’s the full recipe for your reference (this is from my “Italian Week” International Cuisine class packet):

Gnocchi From Mashed Potatoes

1½ cup prepared mashed potatoes (or 2 large Russett/Idaho/baking potatoes, scrubbed)

¼ cup egg, lightly beaten
1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
salt and pepper to taste

For those making a fresh batch of mashed potatoes (if using leftover mashed potatoes, skip steps 1 to 5):

1)   Fill a large pot with cold water. Salt the water, then cut potatoes in half and place them in the pot. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until tender throughout (anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes, depending on how fast your stove range heats up.

2)   Remove the potatoes from the water one at a time with a slotted spoon. Save the potato water.

3)   Place each potato piece on a large cutting board and peel it before moving on to the next potato. Peel each potato as soon as possible after removing from the water (without burning yourself).

4)   Keep in mind that you want to work relatively quickly so you can mash the potatoes when they are hot. To do this you can either push the potatoes through a ricer, or, failing that (not everyone has a potato ricer or knows one with such a thing), run a fork down the sides of the peeled potatoes, creating a nice, fluffy potato base.

5)   Mash the potatoes until you get a consistent base with little to no obvious lumps. Do not over-mash.

6)   Let the potatoes cool spread out across a cutting board (or other flat, protective surface) long enough that the egg won’t cook when it is incorporated into the potatoes.

7)   Pull the potatoes into a soft mound. Drizzle the beaten egg and sprinkle ¾ cup of the flour across the top. With a metal spatula, a pastry scraper, or your own washed and dried hands, incorporate the flour and eggs into the potatoes by repeatedly scraping and folding the mixture until the mixture is a light crumble.

8)   As gently as humanly possible, knead the dough, adding the flour a sprinkle at a time if the dough becomes tacky (“sticky” tacky, not “showing up at church with cheap jewelry, blown-out ‘80s hair, an obvious, second-rate boob/nose job, and Day-Glo spandex” tacky).

9)   When the dough is moist but not sticky, cut the dough into 8 pieces and  gently roll each 1/8th section of dough into a snake-shaped log, roughly the thickness of your thumb. Use a knife to cut pieces every 3/4-inch.

10)   To shape the gnocchi, hold a fork in one hand and place a gnocchi pillow against the tines. Use your thumb and press in and down the length of the fork. The gnocchi should curl into a slight “C” shape and the backs will capture the impression of the tines as tiny ridges.

11)   Set each gnocchi aside and dust with a bit more flour if needed, until you are ready to boil or fry them.

12)   If you want your gnocchi boiled: either reheat your potato water or start with a fresh pot (salted), and bring to a boil. Cook the gnocchi in batches by dropping them into the boiling water roughly twenty at a time. The gnocchi are done when they float back to the top. Fish them out of the water a few at a time with a slotted spoon ten seconds or so after they’ve surfaced. Have a large platter or shallow bowl ready with a generous swirl of whatever sauce or pesto you like with them. Continue cooking in batches until all the gnocchi are done and serve.

13)   If you want your gnocchi fried: As mentioned before, fried gnocchi has a taste akin to that of tater tots. Though you will have experts and websites stating that deep-frying gnocchi will result in turning your kitchen into a fireworks show of hot grease and potato chunks, there is a way you can nip this problem in the bud: stick them in the microwave submerged in water for two minutes to soften them up, then drop them in a frying pan of oil. If the prospect of deep-frying gnocchi still scares you, then pan-frying/shallow-frying is your best bet.

Thanks, and happy eating!

I’d like to close out with the YouTube video that shows just how dangerous gnocchi frying can be: