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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TV Dinners #1: A Cooking Lesson from Cartoon Network

“And then, the Three Little Bacon Steaks WERE PUT IN THE OVEN and baked at 350, SMOTHERED IN CHOCOLATE! The end.”

The Red Guy, Cow and Chicken

This was an actual line from the late 1990s animated show, Cow and Chicken, Cartoon Network’s answer to Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy (only it wasn’t that over-the-top with gross-out humor, but it did make fun of gender identity and transsexuality a lot — not in the same way as South Park and Family Guy have done, but a lot of the jokes would be considered a little near-the-knuckle for more prudish audiences) and part of Cartoon Network’s original programming series, Cartoon Cartoons, which also includes popular series like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Codename: Kids Next Door, and Johnny Bravo, along with lesser-known shows, like Sheep in the Big City, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones, and a favorite I watched in high school, Time Squad*.

This quote was from the season three episode, “Going My Way?”, in which The Red Guy is a drifter who gets adopted by Cow and Chicken’s insane parents and treat him better than their own offspring. One of the ways The Red Guy impresses Mom and Dad (that was their names) is by reading a “fairy tale” from a cookbook.

In this era of food blogs, people emulating food dishes that appear on their favorite show has become common, from people trying to recreate Skittlebrau (Homer’s beer and Skittles concoction from the season nine Simpsons episode, “Bart Star”) to someone setting up a  Tumblr blog centered on making real-world versions of the Burger of the Day specials seen in the background of the FOX animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers (including an especially dubious one from the first episode called “The Child Molester – Served With Candy”).  I’m jumping on the bandwagon as well, but my twist is I’m going to find out if any of the dishes in my favorite TV shows can be recreated in real life.

Welcome to “TV Dinners.” Today’s Special: Bacon Steaks Smothered in Chocolate.

Savory Chocolate Sauce

It may seem like a pregnant lady’s or 20-something stoner’s favorite dish (I mean, really? Who mixes chocolate with anything that isn’t cookies, cake, or candy?), but that’s because chocolate has been pigeon-holed as the stuff of desserts, pastries, frozen delights, breaking dietary taboos, warm winter drinks, sweet summer treats, and, if you really want to let your mind wander into the red-light district, sex. Seriously, who among you hasn’t had prurient thoughts of drizzling someone’s naked flesh in hot fudge and licking it off in sensual voracity? Adult toy stores online and in the real world cater to those who believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac, whether it’s in the form of body paint or performance enhancing bonbons, but that’s another blog entry for another day.

Savory chocolate dishes aren’t rare, but, outside of ambitious young cooks and eaters with an open mind, no one really thinks to try them, which is a shame, as savory chocolate dishes aren’t as nasty as you’d think. In savory chocolate dishes, dark chocolate is commonly used, but some dishes, like this take on baba ghannoush (or ghannouj), uses white chocolate to bring out the creaminess of the mashed eggplant.

Even if you don’t want to dive in headfirst into a savory chocolate dish, you can try a savory chocolate sauce. The one most people would be familiar with is mole (pronounced “mo-lay,” not “mohl,” like the underground animal, a treacherous double agent, or the benign skin tumor that can either be a beauty mark, a sign you may have cancer, or, in some ancient civilizations, a sign you were into witchcraft if you stuck it with a needle and it didn’t bleed), which is served on chicken. Mole sauce is actually the generic name for the dishes served with that kind of sauce, with mole poblano as the most common type outside of Mexico.

Much like a lot of stories of how popular dishes are made, mole was made purely by accident and with limited ingredients. A visitor had stopped at a Mexican convent and two nuns were scrambling for whatever they could provide for him. The nuns had little in the way of food and used a molcajete (a stone mortar and pestle used in traditional Mexican cuisine) to grind every ingredient they could find and simmered it in liquid until it thickened.

Traditionally, mole is made with guajillo chiles (roasted, stemmed, seeded, and chopped), stewed tomatoes, cinnamon, unsalted peanuts, and cocoa powder (though you could substitute that for Mexican chocolate or a bar of dark chocolate that’s been melted in a double boiler). Speaking from personal experience, mole sauce tastes like barbecue sauce without the sweetness and with a little more heat and it goes great with grilled chicken.

However, if you just want a barbecue sauce with a dark chocolate edge, you can prepare this. It’s the homemade barbecue sauce I first made when I decided to take culinary arts at Job Corps, with some minor adjustments.

Dark Chocolate Barbecue Sauce
• 2 tbsps unsalted butter
• 1 oz semisweet chocolate (chopped)
• 1/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
• 2 tbsps cider vinegar
• 2 tbsps unsweetened cocoa powder (I recommend Hershey’s Special Dark baking cocoa)
• 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
• 2 tsps dry mustard
• 2 tsps chili powder
• 2 tsps kosher salt
• 1/2 tsp ground coriander
• 1/4 tsp cayenne
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
• 1 cup stewed tomatoes
• 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
• 2 tablespoons minced garlic
• 2 tablespoons liquid smoke (optional)
• 1 tablespoon paprika
• 2 teaspoons dried oregano
• 2 teaspoons dried thyme
• 1 teaspoon black pepper

Preparation:
Melt butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients (vinegar last), reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Optionally, you can puree this sauce to make a smoother barbecue sauce.

Bacon Steaks

A bacon steak (also known as a bacon chop, but not a pork chop, because a bacon steak is from the part of the pig where we get bacon – the belly if you want the streaky, fatty strip bacon that you can enjoy from breakfast to dinner; if you want Canadian bacon, you have to take it from Porky’s back) is just bacon cut thick enough to pass for a steak, hence the name. It can also be regular beef steak with bacon wrapped around it if you want to get fancy, but, for the sake of this blog post, a bacon steak is a thickly-cut slab of bacon that looks like a steak.

As for whether or not you can bake it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius, or 4 on the gas mark if you’re using a gas oven), you…actually can. Depending on your oven (I’m going by the electric oven I have in my house currently), bacon steaks/chops take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to cook in the oven, turning ever so often so it cooks on both sides. Compare with pork chops, which can take 35 minutes to cook (maybe a little longer, depending on your oven). And yes, you can smother the bacon steaks in chocolate (or rather, the savory chocolate sauce) in chocolate as it cooks. The end result will taste salty, smoky, incredibly rich, and (depending on whether or not you puréed the sauce) very smooth.

And that’s how you make bacon steaks smothered in chocolate.

Thanks, and happy eating

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*There are some Cartoon Network-made shows that have aired on the channel, but aren’t Cartoon Cartoons: Samurai Jack, Class of 3000, Megas XLR, anything made during Cartoon Network’s failed attempt at airing live-action shows (Out of Jimmy’s Head, Dude What Would Happen, Destroy Build Destroy, Incredible Crew, Tower Prep, and Hole in the Wall [even though that was a short-lived game show that aired on the FOX Network]), and the post-Golden Age Cartoon Network shows, like Adventure Time, The Looney Tunes Show (not the installment show of classic shorts, the sitcom), Regular Show, Steven Universe, Uncle Grandpa, MAD, Robotomy, and The Amazing World of Gumball.

Accidental Foods

I have heard of how the sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream cones, potato chips, and popsicles (ice lollies, if you’re UK-born) are a mistake, but the nachos one is a new one. I also have heard that the naming for “chimichangas” was a mistake, as it was from a Mexican mom who was trying to cover up her cursing in front of her child. Another culinary mistake that became popular was the chocolate lava cake. According to food legend, a pastry cook took out a batch of mini chocolate cakes too soon, but since he was in a hurry, he just told the customers that they’re a new dessert made by the kitchen.

Creating accidental foods is how I got through some of my culinary classes, like that tomato-flavored cream cheese that I tried to pass for dip (goes great on bagel sandwiches, especially ones with lox or smoked salmon. Not so much the greasy breakfast sandwiches where sausage, ham, a sunny side-up egg, or bacon is your protein). Or that Mexican cheese and chicken dish I did in Chef Wagner’s Bistro class that I made after I successfully made sopas (pictures below).

Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter

This is the sopa platter, decorated with fried plantains, some salsa (homemade, natch), and lime pieces (with kosher salt on them for that bold, sassy virgin margarita flavor).

This below is the chicken and cheese dish I made for fun:

P04-12-12_11.35

Now, if memory serves me correctly, this was made with roasted red peppers, queso fresco, roasted chicken, and refried beans. You can eat it like a cheap casserole or use it in filling for tacos, quesadillas, or homemade Hot Pockets or mini-pizzas.

Thank you, and happy eating!

Rantings of an Amateur Chef

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I think accidents are the father.

When you think along the pantheon of food, there have been more than a few accidental inventions:

  • Sandwich – The Earl of Sandwich was at a gambling table and didn’t want to get up. I’ve been there and know that feeling. He ordered his dinner of meat to be brought to him between two slices of bread.
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies – A baker at the Toll House Inn (yes, that Toll House) was making chocolate cookies one day and ran out of chocolate powder.  Taking a bar of semi-sweet chocolate, she broke it into chunks and put it into the batter, thinking that the chocolate would melt evenly. It didn’t and thank God for that!
  • Ice Cream Cone – At the 1904 World’s Fair an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes. Lucky for him…

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Making Bacon: Not Just Sexual Innuendo Anymore!

Hello readers. Only three more days until I go back to my regularly scheduled blogging.

In the meantime, enjoy this video from America’s Test Kitchen (probably the only cooking show out there that isn’t inane or considered “food porn”). I don’t know if this show comes on where I live, but, this is the 21st century, and there’s practically no TV show out there that isn’t available online in some capacity (except for maybe these late 1990s horror comedy cartoons I liked: one was called “Toonsylvania,” which Steven Spielberg made when he first started DreamWorks Studios and the other was called “Monster Farm” about a boy named Jack who inherits a farm filled with monster animals. The latter show came on ABC Family Channel back when it was called FOX Family. The former show aired on FOX back when that channel and other free-TV channels, except for NBC and PBS, aired Saturday morning cartoons).

Enjoy, have a happy and healthy new year, and I’ll see you with new material.