Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Origins of the Hamburger: The First 20 Years (Part 1)

The beloved Hamburger, truly an American creation although its ancestry reaches back at least to the ancient Romans. Its ancestry also includes steak tartare, and although some claim the Mongols might have originated that dish, that claim doesn't appear to actually be true. At some point, a minced meat dish was made in Germany, and the city of Hamburg might have provided its name to this dish.

My intent in this article is show some of the origins of Hamburger in the U.S., and in doing so, I push back the dates of the first known documented references to this dish. For now, this article will primarily deal with documented references during the 1870s and 1880s, the first two decades of mentions of Hamburg steak and Hamburgers. Please note that this article is a work in progress, as I continue my research into this topic, and extend the time period covered by this article. 

I've seen claims that the first printed menu to list a hamburger was from Delmonico's, in New York City, in 1834. However, that claim was soundly destroyed in an article in Gastronomica (Spring 2008), by Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost. Most of the other burger histories state that the term "Hamburg steak" didn't appear in print until the 1880s. However, multiple appearances of this term actually occurred at least a decade earlier, during the 1870s. In addition, the first use of the term "Hamburger" has been alleged to have occurred in the later 1880s, but it too actually occurred in the 1870s.


The first documented reference I found of "Hamburg Steak" was the Evening Star (D.C.), July 22, 1872, which discussed Thorpe’s, a "quiet hostelrie."  The article stated, “The specialties of Thorpe’s are flowers and Hamburg steak.” Its preparation was a bit of a mystery to the author of the article, who also thoroughly enjoyed the dish. “As for the Hamburg steak, that is a long way beyond my powers of description. But its tempting incense still gratifies the sense of smell, and the memories of its juicy tenderness and delicious flavor will long live to tickle the palate and awaken pleasant associations. How it is prepared I know not, nor whether the secret of its compounding is to die with its present possessor."

The Chicago Tribune (IL), July 6, 1873, had an advertisement for Anderson’s European Hotel, and its menu included Hamburg Steak.

More details were provided in the Brooklyn Sunday Sun (NY), December 28, 1873, which discussed some of the diners, described as the "aristocracy," and their sumptuous meals at Dieter’s Restaurant, which compared well to the famous Delmonico's. One diner enjoyed "Hamburg beef steak” while another had "Hamburger beef steak" (though there was probably no difference between the two dishes).  This is also the first documented reference to "Hamburger," much earlier than most other sources have claimed. This article also indicates that "Hamburg steak" was served to wealthy diners, and that it wasn't just a dish for the common people.

Hamburg fo breakfast! The Eureka Daily Sentinel (NV), February 25, 1874, had an ad for the San Francisco Restaurant, located in Eureka, and on their breakfast menu there was a listing for “Hamburger Beefsteak” for 25 cents.  This is another very early mention of "hamburger" and also indicated the dish could be enjoyed for breakfast. This would be a common theme for the next twenty years, that Hamburg Steak was a popular breakfast item.

The San Jose Daily Herald (CA), May 7, 1874, published an ad for the Central Market, noting, “If you want a good Hamburg Steak, go to Zimmer’s Stall.”  There was then an ad in the Salt Lake Tribune (UT), September 18, 1874, for the Restaurant Francaise, which had Hamburg Beef Steak for 25 cents. The Quad-City Times (Iowa), October 13, 1874, mentioned that Melchert’s in Davenport, a "celebrated hostlery" served “Hamburg steaks.”

It was rare to find an anti-Hamburg steak article in the newspapers during this time. However, the San Francisco Chronicle (CA), July 18, 1875, was one of those exceptions. In a lengthy article on New York restaurants, there was a section on German restaurants, which stated, “But I don’t think Americans take to them readily, and I am sure their inevitable boiled beef and that most spurious of counterfeits, the Hamburg steak, will never be naturalized in this country.” Obviously this writer was quite wrong, as Hamburgers became hugely popular, and German restaurants have been embraced as well.

The first actual description of a "Hamburger steak" was provided in the Eaton Democrat (OH), December 23, 1875.  The article mentioned, “...sometimes we have what the Germans call a Hamburger steak, that is, the meat, chopped fine like sausage, flavored delicately with onions, and broiled rapidly;” It was a simple dish, and that basic description wouldn't be much different throughout the rest of the 1870s and 1880s. The main differences would be the mention of the use of salt and pepper, and sometimes garlic or an egg.

There were more brief mentions in other newspapers. The Daily Morning Argus (CA), September 26, 1876, had an ad for American Hotel and Restaurant, with Hamburg Steak for 25 cents. The Sun (NY), September 28, 1879, noted that a person had “tackled a Hamburger steak for the first time in six days.” The Bismarck Tribune (ND), November 28, 1879, mentioned that the Thanksgiving menu for the Merchants Hotel had Hamburg steak. Have you ever had a hamburger for Thanksgiving dinner?

Another description of Hamburg steak was offered by the Nebraska State Journal (NE), January 14, 1880.  It stated, “Hamburg steak” is a new dish prepared only by the Rialto, for a few special German friends. It consists of chopped steak seasoned with pepper, salt, and onions, and served without being even warmed.” It seems to indicate this is a dish originally from Germany, and it's interesting the reference to the exclusivity of it being served at the Rialto. It wasn't yet so common a dish that it could be found at just any restaurant. 

The Detroit Free Press (MI), February 13, 1880, noted that at a Detroit cooking school lesson included how to prepare “Hamburger steak.” So, by this point, people at home had some interest in making Hamburger steak for themselves. Briefly, the Oregonian (OR), August 10, 1881, had an ad for the St. Charles Restaurant, selling their Hamburg steak for 10 cents. 

An amusing anecdote appeared in the National Republican (D.C.), February 24, 1882. “They say that Mr. Tilden is in feeble health, but a man who can eat three-quarters of a pound of Hamburger steak every morning for breakfast and wash it down with a bottle os Bass can hardly be said to be in feeble health.” Maybe the first documented pairing of hamburger and beer? 

The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times (SD), July 28, 1882, briefly mentioned that, “Hamburg steak a specialty at the Garfield chop.” It is clear that Hamburg steaks were available all across the country, even though they might only be found in limited restaurants in each region. 

It was claimed that Henry Watterson, a famous journalist, introduced the Hamburg steak to Louisville, Kentucky. The Quad-City Times (Iowa), August 9, 1882, reported that “The Hamburg steak, introduced by him into Louisville, a dish made by grinding beef with a strong mixture of salt, pepper and onions, is his favorite article of diet.

The Boston Daily Advertiser, February 9, 1883, reported on a demonstration lecture at the Boston Cooking-school on “Bread and Breakfast Cakes.” The demo included items including milk bread, yeast, raised waffles, squash waffles, griddle cakes, hominy cakes, broiled meat cakes as well as Hamburg steak. As I mentioned before, Hamburg steak was often seen as a breakfast dish, and at this time period, recipes usually referred to the form of the Hamburg as a "cake" rather than a "patty." Referring to it as a patty wouldn't come until later in time. 

The article provided the recipe too, “Hamburg Steak—Cut or pound round steak to make it tender, spread it with fried onions, fold, pound again and beat; this is, for those who like onions, a delicious breakfast dish, and is easily prepared. In greasing the gridiron for broiling rub with a bit of leaf fat; this is always well to do, it does not mar the flavor, and it does not waste as butter does.”  This article, or sometimes just the Hamburg Steak section, was reprinted in numerous newspapers across the country during this time. 

Another intriguing article was in The Sun (NY), April 27, 1883, which was titled and subtitled “Not Eaten On the Premises; Hamburg Steaks and Pork Chops which Cost but Little and are in Great Demand.” The article discussed a store that sold cooked provisions and began with one person's order, “Give me six Hamburgers, four chops, half a pound of sliced ham, and five cents’ worth of pickles,’ said a bareheaded girl, as she entered a small store that stands near a towering cigar factory on Second Avenue.” It continued, “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 then fried. They also cost 5 cents, and are very good.

More of a connection to Germany. The Chicago Tribune (IL), July 28, 1883, in an article on German Cooking, noted that “A dish of great popularity is what is called ‘Hamburg-steak’ It is made of chopped beef, and is, under circumstance, far preferable to the ordinary sole-leather steak served in boarding houses.

The health benefits of Hamburg steak? During this period, the term dyspeptics was used to refer to people who had indigestion. The Hope Pioneer (ND), October 26, 1883, first mentioned the health benefits for dyspeptics of drinking hot water. In addition, “the new food for dyspeptics" was said to be “the minced steaks and cutlets of Hamburg and Vienna.” This would be another common theme for Hamburg steaks during this time period, and how they were beneficial to dyspeptics and others. 

The article then went into more detail on Hamburg steaks, "This is composed of beef cut from the best part of the round, chopped by machinery in such a way as to separate the nutritious parts from the tough or fibrous structure which contains them. The result is a fine pulp, which is formed into little cakes and lightly broiled. Such a meal as this is said to give the most incorrigible dyspeptic new views of life. Perhaps it may, and it is also possible that patients who have adopted this treatment may prefer the simple nourishment of chopped steaks and hot water to the luxuries proffered at the hotels.” 

Another recipe appeared in The Morning Journal-Courier (CT), November 17, 1883, in an article on a cooking class, which also noted: “A simple meat dish known as Hamburg steak was highly relished.” The recipe was: “Hamburg Steak. One pound of round steak chopped fine, one-fourth teaspoonful pepper, one tablespoonful onion juice. Mix ingredients together and form in little cakes one-half inch thick. Put one tablespoonful drippings in frying-pan. When hot put in the cakes and fry five or six minutes, or until a rich brown.” Again, we note that the recipe talks about forming the meat into "cakes" and not "patties." 

Another simple recipe was provided in the Chicago Tribune (IL), April 27, 1884, which took it from a Boston Herald article that was reprinted in numerous papers. The article was complaining that the waste of food was due in large part to a lack of knowledge by cooks. It also stated, “Did you ever eat Hamburg steak? No? Well, you take a piece of good lean beef, grind it up fine, put in salt, pepper, and onions chopped fine; then break in eggs sufficient and mix the whole up together. Flatten into a cakelike mass and fry it until done in sweet butter.”

Succinctly, the Indianapolis News (IN), May 12, 1884, put it, “Hamburg steak is simply minced beef.”

A lengthier article was in the Evening Star (D.C.), January 3, 1885, which was reprinted from the Philadelphia Ledger. The article was about home advice, and part of the article stated: “Hamburg steaks are the nearest thing to raw beef to be cooked at all, and yet they are very good. For all persons recommended to relieve lung troubles, etc. by the hot water and beef diet, the Hamburg steal comes most acceptable. Even tough beef is good cooked in this style. Take a piece of good beef-of course the better the beer, the better your Hamburg will be—and chop it up very fine, first taking out whatever there may be of skin, fat or sinews. Season the meat with salt and cayenne to taste, and then mince very finely a small onion together with a little garlic. Mix these well through and then form it into meat cakes about an inch in thickness. You can broil them on a wire toaster or on an ordinary gridiron if you are careful. Or course the larger masses you take for the sausage cake or steak the more rare it will be within. Cook quickly over a bright fire, and turn them so as to brown on both sides, immediately, so you have all the juices kept within. Serve with or without plain butter sauce, as it happens to agree with your diet rules.”

Again, we see Hamburg steak being recommended for medicinal reasons, although this time for lung issues and not indigestion. And again, the recipe is very simple, adding only salt, pepper and onion to the hamburg meat. 

Hamburg steak as a luxury? The Atchison Daily Patriot (KS), June 16, 1885, mentioned that “among the luxuries served up by Robert Wetzel is genuine Hamburg steak. This is a most delicious dish, and it is seldom one can get the genuine article in a city like Atchison.” It seems that Hamburg steak was still considered a more high-end dish, not available everywhere, but treasured when it could be found. 

Another lengthy article was in the Lancaster New Era (PA), September 5, 1885, which wrote: “A Hamburger Steak, from the Caterer. In the first place the steak must be good. Any economy practiced in this respect toward the Hamburger will be just as fatal to its excellence as to that of any other mode of cooking a steak. A good sirloin, or a good rump, entirely free from any stringiness, should be used, and the proportion of fat to lean, to please most tastes, would probably be one fourth, or perhaps a little less, of the former and three-fourths of the latter. The meat should be minced very finely and seasoned thus: For each half pound of the meat add two teaspoonfuls of finely-minced onion, a half of a clove of garlic, also chopped very fine, and pepper and salt, a half a teaspoonful of each of the two latter would probably suit most palates. After the seasoning is thoroughly mixed through it, the meat is to be formed into rather thin cakes and fried on both sides in butter, the pan of course being thoroughly heated before the meat is put in; when done, dish up and serve with the gravy poured over it, garnishing with Lyonnaise potatoes. Many person may object to the addition of garlic and onion, and the steak can, of course, be prepared without them; yet in that cause it is hardly entitled to the name of Hamburger.” 

We see the recommendation that good beef should be used for Hamburg steak, but we also see the addition of garlic, which we haven't seen before. Plus, we see the addition of gravy as well. The Hamburg steak is seeing a bit more variation at this point, although it is still essentially the same dish.

How do you chop or mince the meat for Hamburg steak? A new kitchen tool started coming on the market, making it easier for home cooks. The Pacific Bee (CA), December 4, 1885, published an advertisement for a Meat Chopper, which stated: “Mince and sausage meat, Hamburg steak, hash, etc. chopped at the rate of one pound per minute.” Meat choppers would be mentioned many times in the newspaper of this period, and eventually started discussing the health benefits of Hamburg Steak. 

Another recipe but with a variation. The Abbeville Press & Banner (SC), December 30, 1885, provided several recipes, including one for Hamburg Steak. It stated: "Take one pound of very finely chopped or scraped round or rump steak. If you do not care to scrape it free from sinews ask the butcher to do it for you. Put in a frying pan an ounce of butter; add a teaspoonful of minced onion, and fry it a delicate brown. Now shape the steak in a round form, about an inch and a half thick, and fry it in the same pan with the onion; when done add a pinch of cayenne. Meat prepared in this form is always more digestible than solid steaks, and the ways of serving it are quite numerous. Some like it raw, highly seasoned with finely-chopped raw onion and parsley, cayenne, salt and the yolk of a raw egg. Others eat it very rare and some insist on cooking it almost as dry as chips. In our opinion it is best cooked about ‘medium,’ and a poached egg placed on top of it is quite acceptable.” 

The article notes how Hamburg steak is better for your digestion than regular steaks, and that it can be served in a variety of ways, from similar to a steak tartare to very well done. In its raw form, it might be topped by a raw egg yolk, while if it is cooked, a poached egg might be placed atop it. Today, plenty of restaurants offer a fried egg atop their burgers, and I'm a big fan of adding an egg to a burger.

More Hamburg steaks for breakfast! The Fort Worth Daily Gazette (TX), May 2, 1886, printed, “Hamburg steaks prepared in this way are relished by many for breakfast. Scrape the lean meat from the sinews of rump steak; season it with salt and pepper and form it into flat, round cakes. Mince an onion and fry it brown in butter; then fry in this the steaks a delicate brown. They may be rare or well done, according to taste. Gravy or sauce piquante is served with them.

Return of the meat-chopper. The Kansas Farmer (KS), October 27, 1886, had an ad for a meat chopper, noting it was, “For chopping Sausage meat, mince meat, hamburg steak for dyspeptics, beef tea for invalids, &c.” The medicinal aspects were emphasized once again. 

The Abbeville Press & Banner (SC), November 17, 1886, briefly mentioned that the Jim Fisk restaurant, sold a Hamburger steak for 8 cents. 

And the meat-chopper and health concerns returned. The Times (PA), November 20, 1886, printed an ad (pictured above) for a meat chopper with stated, “Eminent physicians advise dyspeptics to drink hot water before eating. Also to eat Hamburg Steaks cut by the Enterprise Meat-Chopper.

Origins of the Hamburg steak were presented. The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), February 6, 1887, noted, “The minced steak with onions and poached egg, is English, but we received it in later years as a Hamburg steak from the Germans. The Romans however pounded their meat almost to a mince.”

An intriguing New York City restaurant. The News-Herald (Ohio), April 21, 1887, discussed Beefsteak John, an eating house in the Bowery of New York City. The Swiss owner started by devoting the restaurant to broiling beefsteaks at low prices, and eventually expanded the restaurant's size and menu. The restaurant was then able to seat about 200 people, and it fed about 1800 people each day. Steak and onions remained the primary entree, and you couldn't opt out of the onions. It was interesting to note that the restaurant didn't even provide napkins to its customers. 

As his steaks were cheap, they also tended to be tough, so some of his older customers had to stop eating there as their teeth were not up to the job, To cater to these individuals, the restaurant introduced a “Hamburger steak,” which was “...a formation of chopped beef, pressed into the shape of a solid steak, and fried brown.” It became so popular that the restaurant sold about 300 pounds of Hamburg steak each day. The size of each Hamburg steak wasn't mentioned but if they were one-third of a pound each, then about half of the customers each day would have ordered one.  

The Indianapolis News (IN), May 7, 1887, printed an article on various meat preparations and recipes, including Hamburg steak. The article stated,  “Take juicy, thick, round steak, free it from skin and gristle, lay it on a board, chop it as dine as possible all over with a sharp heavy knife; turn the meat and do the same; it should not be almost like sausage meat; wherever the knife comes in contact with skin or gristle cut it out; pepper and salt all over one side, then double the meat and cut into cakes; they should be an inch and a half thick; if the double steak makes it thicker beat it thinner with a broad knife. Broil these cakes or fry them in German fashion in a very hot pan with a little butter; when done lay a poached egg on each cake and server very hot.” 

Once again, we see the addition of poached eggs to the Hamburg. The article continued, “The poached eggs are part of the dish called Hamburg steak, but of course the cakes are excellent without then. If they are omitted put a small piece of batter on each with pepper and salt.” 

Household hints were provided in an article in the Indiana State Sentinel (IN), January 4, 1888. It stated, “A Hamburg cook gives a good way for using a kind of steak, the round, which usually is well flavored, but is too tough to broil in the ordinary way. To prepare it remove the skin, fat and sinews from two pounds of the lower part of the round. Chop the meat very fine, add to it a clove of minced garlic and one small red onion chopped fine, half a teaspoonful of pepper and a teaspoonful of salt. Shape the mass into little steaks an inch in thickness by wetting your hands so the meat will not cling to them. Fry the steaks in hot butter and serve them with or without tomato sauce. Hamburg steaks may also be broiled in a double broiler which has been well buttered.” 

Garlic is seen again as an ingredient, but something new is the addition of tomato sauce. Is that a precursor to ketchup?

If you are preparing for a marathon, eat Hamburg! The Courier-Journal (KY), July 1, 1888, had a lengthy article on various ways to train for road races. One piece of advice was, “Eat good nourishing food. A Hamburg steak is one of the best things for breakfast, with toast and coffee.” Again, Hamburg steak for breakfast, although there wasn't the mention of an egg. 

Another brief recipe was provided in the Argus & Patriot (VT), April 24, 1889. The recipe stated, “Hamburg Steak—Two parts lean and one part fat tender beef or use proportions to suit yourself. Chop fine, season with salt, pepper and onion, if you like, then add grated bread crumbs, mix well, add a little beaten egg, roll into balls, flour, and fry a crisp brown.”

Hamburg steak in Hawaii! The Honolulu Advertiser (HI), July 22, 1889, printed an ad for Harrys Lunch Rooms, with Hamburg Steak for 25 cents, which also included a drink of tea, coffee or chocolate. 

So, the first documented mentions of Hamburg Steaks and Hamburgers occurred at least in the early 1870s, and the item remained relatively similar during the 1870s and 1880s. However, during these two decades, there weren't any references to a hamburger sandwich. That would come during the 1890s, which I'll write about in the near future. 

To Be Continued....

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