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Tracing the history of hamburgers
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Forsyth County News

May is National Hamburger Month.

I love history in general, and especially learning about how various foods play into history.

Have you ever wondered about the role of hamburgers? Maybe not, but here are some interesting facts about how this American classic came to be such a staple.

As with so many foods, there are controversies over who exactly “invented” this or that. When it comes to hamburgers, you really have to go way back and think about who first began grinding meat and forming it into patties.

I found it interesting that if you look way back to the 12th century, when the nomadic Mongols were fighting under Genghis Khan (1167-1227), riders put meat under their saddles so they would “crumble” and cook due to the heat from the horse. That sure sounds delicious and sanitary — not.

Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (1215-94) and his troops who invaded Moscow, introduced minced horsemeat to residents of the area. Recipes began showing up in the 1240s, which were later called steak tartare in what is now Germany.

Russian ships brought steak tartare to the port of Hamburg in the 17th century. This became a major port during the European colonization of the Americas.

Hamburg was a major hub for both passengers and freight during the first half of the 19th century. New York, of course, was the major destination.

Hamburg style steak became popular on menus and as street food, to which the creative Germans added capers, onions and even caviar. It often was topped with an egg.

The first meat grinder came on the market in the early part of the 19th century, so that helped facilitate the grinding for the tartare.

Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, was published in the beginning of the 20th century. Though it was fictional accounts of corruption in the booming American meat industry, it helped raise awareness about food safety issues.

So the big question: Just who invented the hamburger as we know it? As with so many things in food history, it’s open to debate.

Many individuals began getting — and taking — credit between 1885 and 1904.

White Castle (founder Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram) is often considered to be the oldest fast-food restaurant. Ingram went on to work with Walter Anderson and they sold their burgers for 5 cents each.

There were others who were marketing the hamburger at various fairs around the country. The rest, as they say, is history.

Americans love hamburgers, consuming nearly 50 billion a day. That translates to three burgers a week per American.

How funny to think of the typical burger, layered with lettuce, onion, pickles, cheese, ketchup and mustard, used to be topped with capers, caviar and a raw egg.

I think the evolution was a success.


Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” E-mail her at