April 01, 2007

Home of the Hamburger?

By Barry Popik
A veritable war among the states has broken out, with various locales claiming to be the home of our iconic national meal on a bun. Americans are a proud bunch, and we love our hamburgers, selling them by the billions at home and around the world. Rival claims to inventing this significant contribution to world cuisine not only exist, they have been backed by the majesty of legislative and executive acts on the part of a few states. No National Guard units have been mobilized yet, but the controversy is still escalating.

A brief rundown of rival hometowns for the burger certainly is in order

Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas?

The most recent hamburger controversy began in late 2006, when Betty Brown of the Texas House of Representatives filed a bill declaring Athens, Texas to be the "Original Home of the Hamburger."  In the 1970s, Frank X. Tolbert (1912-1984)  published articles in the Dallas Morning News about the history of the hamburger. Tolbert contended that Fletcher C. Davis (1864-1941) of Athens, Texas had served hamburgers at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, and Tolbert quoted an article in the New York Tribune about the fair's "new sandwich" that was "the innovation of a food vendor on the pike." Tolbert wrote about a picture of "Old Dave's Hamburger Stand" from that "pike" (or "midway").

Fletcher Davis was from Webster Grove, Missouri (near the location of the 1904 St. Louis fair), and he came to Athens to work as a potter. He cooked at pottery picnics and eventually opened a small lunch counter on north side of the courthouse square (115 Tyler Street), possibly serving his "hamburgers" by the late 1880s. When Davis returned from the fair, other people in Athens were serving hamburgers, so he returned to pottery (according to an oral account given to Tolbert by Davis's nephew).

Betty Brown's "Original Home of the Hamburger" bill passed a unanimous Texas House of Representatives voted on Thursday, March 22, 2007.

This is from the bill's own words:

"(A) reporter for the New York Tribune, writing about the fair, made note of the new sandwich in an article and commented that it was the vendor's own creation;...WHEREAS, Although it was served with slices of fresh-baked bread instead of a bun, this early version of the hamburger was then much like it is today and contained ground beef, ground mustard mixed with mayonnaise, a large slice of Bermuda onion, and sliced cucumber pickles; customers could also enjoy fried potatoes, served with a thick tomato sauce; when the journalist from the Tribune was told that Mr. Davis had learned to fix potatoes in that manner from a friend in Paris, Texas, he misunderstood and described the item to his readers as french-fried potatoes; and WHEREAS, According to a nephew of Mr. Davis's, the new sandwich acquired its name during the potter's sojourn in St. Louis; one theory holds that local residents of German descent may have named the sandwich after the city of Hamburg, whose citizens had a special affinity for ground meat;..."
Texas legislators have spoken! Athens, Texas is the "Original Home of the Hamburger"! The name "hamburger" comes from the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904! The name "french fries" supposedly comes from a misunderstanding about Paris, Texas!

The only problem with this is that it's all wrong. I e-mailed the chairman of the Texas House's Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee and said that I'm a Texas citizen and an Oxfored English Dictionary consultant and a food scholar, and I need to be notified on how and when I can speak on this "hamburger bill", which cannot be allowed to pass. I never got a response, so I never offered my erudition to the solons in Austin.

Betty Brown was surely aware of the article by Josh Ozersky ("Mr. Cutlets"), "Want lies with your burger?", that appeared in the January 29, 2007 Los Angeles Times. Ozersky was devastating to the Texas claim:

"My research assistant, Andrea Murphy, and I have painstakingly looked through the Tribune's archives and can safely say that this report does not exist. Furthermore, there is no Fletcher Davis on the fair's concession list. In fact, we found no documentary evidence for Texas' claim at all."

The New York Tribune (1900-1910) has been fully digitized and can be searched by any visitor to the New York Public Library.... We can safely say that no such "hamburger" article appeared in the New York Tribune.

"French frying" was well known throughout the 19th century. "French fried potatoes" were cited in cookbooks from at least the 1880s.  No one at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair could possibly have believed that "french fried potatoes" originated from Paris, Texas.

The term "hamburger" was used decades before 1904. Texas should be embarrassed, but our story is far from over.

Louis Lunch of New Haven Connecticut?

Louis' Lunch of New Haven, Connecticut also claims to be the "Original Home of the Hamburger." Stated on Louis' Lunch website:

"One day in the year 1900 a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment's owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sent the customer on his way, so the story goes, with America's first hamburger."

Louis' Lunch opened as a lunch cart in 1895 and as a small restaurant in 1900. It serves beef between two slices of toast, possibly with cheese, tomato, and/or onion but definitely without ketchup. Louis's cast iron ovens date from 1898.

The Library of Congress once declared that the "hamburger" was invented at Louis' Lunch, and the restaurant often cites this to dismiss all other claims and evidence.

Frank Tolbert wrote (in the 1970s) that Louis' Lunch served a "steak sandwich," but not a "hamburger." Ozersky's recent Los Angeles Times article went further:

"There is only one problem: the next hamburger Louis' Lunch serves will be its first. The restaurant makes a broiled ground-beef patty that is served on toast. Such a sandwich is, historically and semiotically speaking, not a hamburger."
Ozersky pointed out an 1894 article in the same Los Angeles Times that mentioned "hamburger steak sandwiches."

Indeed, there are several "hamburger sandwich" citations before 1900, before 1898, and even before 1895. It is a documented fact that Louis' Lunch did not invent the "hamburger."

This is not to say anything about Louis' Lunch or the quality of its celebrated hamburgers, but our search moves on.

Charles Nagreen of Seymour, Wsiconsin?

Charlie Nagreen (1870-1951) was born in Hortonville, Wisconsin.  When he was 15 (in 1885), he sold meatballs at the Seymour Fair. A 1947 article from the Appleton (WI) Post on Seymour's "Home of the Hamburger" website states that
"Back in 1885, ground beef patties were called meatballs, and then they became known as 'hamburgers.' C.R. Nagreen 2102 S. Oneida Street, known as 'Hamburger Charlie' avers he is the originator of the word 'hamburger.'"
On January 30, 1997, a Wisconsin Assembly Joint Resolution was filed by Representative Tom Nelson to declare Seymour, Wisconsin, as the home of the hamburger. The bill is still pending before the committee on Rules.

There is no further documentation of the Wisconsin claim. Just when did "Hamburger Charlie" stop selling meatballs and put his ground beef between two slices of bread? When did he call them "hamburgers"? We may never know.

What we do know, however, is that the name "hamburger" existed before 1885. We'll keep Charlie in mind--he's certainly earlier than Fletcher Davis or Louis' Lunch--but we'll move on.

Frank Menches of Akron, Ohio & Hamburg, New York?

This is from an Associated Press story, datelined Akron, Ohio, and widely reprinted in American newspapers on October 5, 1951:
"Frank Menches, who said he invented the hamburger when pressed for sausage at a county fair 59 years ago, died yesterday at 86. Menches said the 'burger was born when he ran out of pork sausages at a food stand at the Summit county, O. fair. When the crowd got hungry, he ordered his assistant to 'grind some beef' and a great American dish took form. The hamburger got its name, Menches maintained, from an unknown customer at the Lorain county, O. fair in 1892."
The Menches Brothers website lists the historic "hamburger" place as the Hamburg (Erie County, New York) fair:
"History recorded that Frank and Charles Menches ran out of pork for their sausage patty sandwiches at the 1885 Erie County Fair. Their supplier, reluctant to butcher more hogs in the summer heat, suggested they use beef instead. The brothers fried some up, but found it bland. They added coffee, brown sugar, and other ingredients to create a taste which stands distinct without condiments. They christened this sandwich the 'hamburger' after Hamburg, New York where the fair was being held."18
According to a 2005 Business Week interview with John Menches (CEO of Menches Brothers), the "hamburger" was named after the Hamburg (NY) fair:
"Uncle Frank didn't really know what to call it, so he looked up and saw the banner for the Hamburg fair and said, 'This is the hamburger.'"
Again, the name "hamburger" was around before 1885 (Hamburg fair) and before 1892 (Lorain County, Ohio fair). The 1885 date seems early--would a 20-year-old from Ohio be selling food at a fair in New York, or was this date invented to compete with the Wisconsin "Hamburger Charlie" claim? The obituary information about the 1892 Ohio fair seems more probable. Again, there is no historical documentation from the 1800s.

Oscar Weber Bilby of Tulsa, Oklahoma?

It is claimed that Oscar Weber Bilby of Tulsa, Oklahoma invented the hamburger at a cookout on July 4, 1891. Oscar and his son, Leo, opened the family's first hamburger stand--called Weber's Superior Root Beer Stand--in 1933 in Tulsa. In 1995, the governor of Oklahoma declared Tulsa to be home of the hamburger.

There is no documentation at all that the hamburger was invented in Tulsa in 1891. And if the hamburgers tasted so good, why did it take the family over 40 more years to open a tiny hamburger stand? Of course I am a Texan, and we tend to doubt any claims coming from notth of the border.

Hamburg Steak of Hamburg, Germany?

The town with the greatest claim to the "hamburger" is Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg is a port city; it is likely that Hamburg didn't invent the "hamburger," either, but that German emigrants brought the recipe with them to America. The Hamburg-America Lines (Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft) brought many German immigrants to America beginning in 1848, and it is sometimes claimed that "hamburgers" were first served on board this passage. However, "Hambug(h) beef" is recorded at least twice in the early 1840s.

By the 1870s, it's recorded that "hamburg steak" was already famous. The 1873 New York Times described this as
"simply a beefsteak redeemed from its original toughness by being mashed into mincemeat and then formed into a conglomerated mass."
The 1883 New York Sun provides this gem:
"Those flat, brown meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg steaks; the people call them 'Hamburgers.' They are made from raw meat chopped up with onions and spices, and are very good."
So the name "hamburger" existed by at least 1883 in New York City-- earlier than claims of 1885, 1891, 1892, 1895, 1898, 1900, and certainly earlier than the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

There remains only the question of who made the "hamburger sandwich"--a hamburger between two slices of bread. "Tom Fraker's celebrated Hamburger steak sandwiches" appear in the 1893 Reno, Nevada Evening Gazette. "Hamburger steak sandwiches" are also cited in the 1894 Chicago Daily Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Earlier discoveries are sure to be made as 19th century material becomes fully searchable on the internet, through the Library of Congress, Google Books, NewspaperArchive, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, and other sources.


As a Texan, I am ashamed at the Texas House. The best move for Texas would be to repeal its "Original Home of the Hamburger" legislation immediately. And yes, we want "french fries" with that! I will leave it up the the citizens of Wisconsin and Oklahoma to deal with their own state governments. The media that has consistently misreported this great American story, but is anyone surprised?

Instead, Texas should have a Texas Food Museum, or a Southwest Food Museum, illustrating the great foods of the Southwest, like chili and chicken fried steak and Texas toast and frozen Margaritas and Texas grapefruit. In the spirit of international cooperation, the glories of Tex-Mex cuisine might also merit a place.

But what we as a nation really need is a Smithsonian Museum solely dedicated to American food -- what we grow and what we eat. It'll have hamburgers (to be sure), but also hot dogs, pizza, ice cream and smoothies. Given the many international influences that continue to shape the way we eat, such a museum could contribute to our diplomacy as well as our understanding of the our place in the world. That would be a proper way to celebrate American food, and that should be the logical conclusion to this story--with all sides agreeing to join in that chorus.

Just imagine the food court! It could become the favorite stopping point of tourists visiting our nation's capital.

Where is the original home of the hamburger? We know something about that now, and we know where it isn't. I will keep looking. In the meantime, we should plan to properly tell the story of all American food, and we should not celebrate something that is false. Chew on that.

Barry Popik lives in Kyle, Texas, and is a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, a contributor to the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and an editor on the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.