One of the most popular of fast foods to ever have been, the burger is an all tie favourite. Fresh buns of sesame spotted bread sandwiching in between them layers of crisp and firm lettuce, juicy tomatoes, crunchy onions and everything from veggies to meat to cheese or a combination of all, smeared with zingy sauces and spreads, the messy appeal of a burger never fails to have us all drooling in anticipation of its notoriously bad fast food goodness. Dripping oodles of deliciousness mark our every bite into this sandwich of all things irresistible, leading to an explosion of the most amazing flavours in our mouth, even as a pair of greasy hands and a guilty conscience lurk there, waiting to present to us all the inconveniences of biting into a good ol’ burger, but of course with no success. For the temptation of taste and the sin of indulgence are too good fetishes of life to squander anyday, even if that means a few extra inches around the waist and a few less moments to live. But in devouring that big fat mound of decadent meats and stringy cheeses layered between fresh rounds of breads, we already are living life in all its greatness to the most extreme of extents possible. Which is why we are a mass of unapologetic and unafraid gluttons when it comes to ‘laying down our lives’ for the sake of furthering our love with the enormous of all food giants.
In its identity as a fast selling out phenomenon within the fast food world, the burger needs to be supposedly, and essentially, modern. It therefore amounts to some dollop of surprise that burgers, or at least the precursors of them, are several centuries old- in fact so much so that they can qualify in fact to be some sort of ‘ancient items of gastronomy’. Stemming from as far back as the 4th century have been a certain type of burger, sans the bread though and prevailing only in what is today the patty, in the form of a Roman preparation of beef called the isicia omentata. And while burgers todays are by no means exclusive meat based sandwiches, let alone beef ones, the term used alternatively for them i.e. hamburger indeed is an allusion to all things concerning the red meat. Which makes today’s burger that comes dripping with sophistication a very worthy descendant of the isicia omentata, which by the way finds mention as a baked patty in which beef is mixed with pine kernels, black and green peppercorns, and white wine, as recorded in the Apicius cookbook.
Today enjoying the most popularity in the United States while also being a cosmopolitan presence the world over, the European origins of the burger has not in any way limited its appeal as an icon of the culinary world all- over. Not however all food historians recognise the burger to be exclusively and anciently European in nativity, even when only discreetly related to the modern day iteration of it, as another belief attributes this classic bite of gastronomy to Mongolia. Rooted in much ‘modern’ times of the 13th century might be the burger that probably emerged to be a culinary staple under the Mongols. Fierce horsemen warriors, how the Mongols interpreted the burger makes for another interesting exploration of food being at the foremost as a means of survival. Conquering most of Eurasia by stashing thick slabs of raw beef under their saddles to soften them, these breed of legendary conquerors referred to as Tatars or Tartars gave birth to a really unique culinary phenomenon that soon spread throughout the empire. Moscow in particular took on this new form of ‘cooked raw delicacy’ as the steak tartare by the end of the century, that which made inroads also into Germany much later, in the 17th century.
The name hamburger, or simply burger, however is a work of times more modern even when its roots are sincerely rooted in times of the past. Believed to derive its name from the city of Hamburg in Germany where beef delicacies came to be popular, it is still even more recent a drawing of this now favourite on-the-go item that saw it take form as a sandwich in the real sense of the term, with the buns emerging really late, only sometime during the last decades of the 19th century. The name Hamburg for various other foods like the namesake steak and sausage has persisted though from times of a little less recent past, precisely the later part of the 18th century and took on full fledged popularity in early times of the following century, when restaurants in New York offered Hamburg-style American fillet to European immigrants from Hamburg, made to suit the tastes of the European affinity for high quality red meat, essentially beef. In fact, the first recorded version of the Hamburg sausage is found in a 1747 cookbook The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, before embarking also into the annals of the Oxford English Dictionary as Hamburg steak by 1802.
Soon thereafter, the ground meat patties, or the Hamburg steak, whether raw or slightly cooked, found seating between a pair of buns, perhaps by 1885 but on different accounts. While one relates to the Erie County Fair of New York when the Menches brothers, Frank and Charles, ran out of pork sausages and substituted instead beef into their sandwiches for the birth of the hamburger, the more popular account is attributable to one of the possible fathers of the hamburger Charlie Nagreen. Popular as Hamburger Charlie, Nagreen’s version of the burger emerged from his ‘trysts’ with it quite early in life when at the age of 15 he began selling Hamburger steaks, but with not much success. In response therefore, Charlie devised this ingenious method of flattening the steak and putting in between two pieces of bread to make it more convenient for revelers at the Seymour Fair in Wisconsin where they were first sold. Both these accounts are countered by numerous other similar claims of the hamburger’s invention, but what lends the Menches brothers as well as Charlie Nagreen a greater degree of authenticity in their claim are two specific ‘events’ relating to both. While the “National Birth of the Burger Day” is celebrated on September 18th to honor the invention of the burger in 1885 at the Hamburg Fair, Nagrin’s accomplishment came to be celebrated annually with a “Burger Fest” in his honor in his hometown of Seymour.
Despite its proper emergence on the scene as a whole ‘meal’ of bread and meat in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that the hamburger came to covet global attention. Featured at the menu of Louis’ Lunch at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, known for its unprecedented contributions in a range of spheres of the human existence, was the hamburger that was since described by the New-York Tribune as “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike.” Also selling the hamburger at the same fair was Fletcher Davis, who claimed to be another introducer of the present day iconic favorite, even earlier back in 1880. Whatever the claims of its origin might be though, one thing is for certain that the hamburger indeed owes its phenomenal present day presence to the Louis World’s Fair, as does a variety of other interesting food items like waffle ice cream cones and cotton candy to peanut butter and iced tea that were all first introduced to the Americans under its aegis. The first half of the 1900s saw another notable claim to fame for the hamburger, as it came to be referred to singularly, by doing away with the steak suffix, which in times to follow made way for the more colloquial demand for just the burger.
The hamburger, or the burger, would however not be the commonplace favorite that it today is, if not for the emergence of what is today two of its greatest players in the fast food market. Indeed, the fast food experience would never have been the same if the names of McDonalds and Burger King would not have come to be synonymous with it. But what helped these fast growing fast food chains embark on a journey that was once marred by concerns of health and hygiene revolving around the premises of a food that came into existence as a serving of raw meat has been the opening of the White Castle restaurant in Wichita in 1926. Credited for developing the hamburger sandwich as we know it today, White Castle was set up by Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram and Walter Anderson as the first fast food restaurant. Deriving from Anderson’s 1916 experience of dishing up a hamburger in his hamburger stand at Wichita by also introducing onion rings into them for a distinctive flavour, the White Castle Restaurant had been instrumental in offsetting associated negative notions of the hamburger business.
So successful was Anderson’s version of the burger even selling from his ordinary stall that customers began buying them by the dozen, giving rise to what would come to become White Castle’s popular slogan of “buy ’em by the sack” later on. Equally epoch making had been the restaurant in other aspects of the burger boom, being the first to market square burgers or the sliders in the 1940s. As other businesses and chains followed suit, many other variants of the burger came to be in the coming decades, available today in so many different combination of fillings and stuff that hamburgers have ceased to be exclusively restricted meat based meals. While other meat based burgers like the chicken burger or a turkey burger and of course pork burgers are still hot favorites, equally popular has been vegetarian burgers and even vegan burgers, while a classic cheeseburger too commands the craze of its own die hard foodie enthusiasts.
But perhaps the most striking variant of them all would be the rice burger where it isn’t the stuffing but the buns that are replaced with compressed rice patties that are shaped to look like buns! Originating from Japan and today popular throughout the rice eating regions of Asia, particularly in South Korea where they are known as bapburgers. Emerging as concepts of novelty also are dessert burgers that can be buns stuffed with anything sumptuously sweet like ice creams or brownies or crumbled cookies or Nutella or a mix of all things sugary and sinful, replacing very well the pickles and veggies and meat and condiments and sauces of the regular burger, or the hamburger, so that this model of loaded culinary elements stays true to its popularity as the ultimate fast food choice of all times and of every place in the world.