Hamburger

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

hamburger one of the principal forms in which beef is consumed, has but a short history as a name (it first turned up in print in the early 1870s), although it is obvious that consumption of cooked round patties or rissoles of meat, dates back a very long way, and not only in Europe. The name itself celebrates the high-quality beef of the Hamburg region, where seasoned patties were often prepared.

The method of preparation (if not the beef itself) accompanied the great wave of German immigration in the early 19th century so that Delmonico’s restaurant in New York was offering a Hamburg Steak of ground beef on its menu of 1834. It figured often on menus (sometimes as Beefsteak à la Hamburg) and in cookbooks (for instance Mrs Lincoln’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook of 1884). The ‘leap from plate to sandwich’ (as Andrew Smith puts it) seems to have occurred in the 1890s with the great increase in mobile ‘lunch wagons’ in the big cities of the eastern US, for whom the dish seemed ideal. It then seems that ‘the St Louis World Fair of 1904 was a significant launching pad for the hamburger in a bun as we know it (known at first as the hamburger sandwich) although the suspicion of the American public towards the meat industry (thanks in part to the exposés of Upton Sinclair) delayed its wholehearted acceptance until the White Castle chain of restaurants convinced its customers of their proper attention to health and hygiene in the 1920s’ (Hogan, 1997).