The Humble Hamburger

The hamburger origin dispute is fun. The effort made to claim the invention of the hamburger is in stark contrast to effort needed to make one. There is one claim by Carlie Nagreen of Hortonville, WI, who claimed to serve them first at the Seymour County Fair in 1885. There are also claims for invention at a lunch counter in New Haven, CT., in 1900 and at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1906. Barry Popik may have the final word on the subject. A quick summary: “Hamburger sandwiches” were a nation-wide phenomenon by the late 1800’s based on an adaption of Hamburg steak from Germany and spread across the U.S. by immigrants. Here is one of my favorite references:

October 1883, The Caterer and Household Magazine, pg. 76, col. 1:
“I should like a recipe for ‘Hamburger steak,’ a dish I am very fond of, but I must confess have not been successful in preparing.”
Or, instead of frying, place your steaks upon a gridiron or double wire broiler, well greased, and broil them on both sides; place them on a hot dish, and pour over them melted butter seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper. This mixture of meat is also often spread upon slices of bread, with butter in which a spoonful of dry mustard has been mixed, and used as a sandwich, or it may be served raw and cold with slices of Vienna bread spread with gilt-edged butter.

A few things are very clear – hamburgers as we think of them today, are simply a sandwich adaptation of a much older Hamburg steak tradition. The description above predates every single origination claim. Basically, no one can lay claim to the invention, but they’re still going to try. The second thing that is very clear, this is not Great Lakes Cuisine. Now there are a few hallmarks of Great Lakes Cuisine here – immigrant dish with some deep roots in the Germanic immigration to the Great Lakes region. But this is a dish that has simply become ubiquitous, it belongs to everyone and no one. It is not uniquely identifiable with the Great Lakes region. That doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy a great burger. So just to indulge a bit, here are some recent favorites. (Oh and before I move on,if you get really food geeky and want a description of gilt-edged butter like I did – here you go)

Prepared very similarly to our description from 1883 above. Pretzel bun, malt vinegar caramelized onions
Prepared very similarly to our description from 1883 above. Pretzel bun, malt vinegar caramelized onions.


Brie and caramelized onions
Brie and caramelized onions, from John’s Sandwich Shop in Wauwatosa, WI. Note the broccoli slaw served as a side, delicious.


Mac-n-cheeseburger enjoyed with a Road Slush Stout from the fine folks at New Glarus Brewing.
Mac-n-cheeseburger enjoyed with a Road Slush Stout from the fine folks at New Glarus Brewing. Would have been even better with our Ultimate Mac.


Not even a hamburger – Thin sliced, house roast beef on a pretzel bun with arugula, blue cheese, and malt vinegar caramelized onions.

A couple of honorable mentions – We enjoyed a patty melt recently made with a half and half mixture of ground sirloin and bratwurst removed from the casing, topped with our ever-present malt vinegar caramelized onions, shredded Montamore from Sartori Cheese, on marble rye from the folks at Clasen Bakery. Again, not technically a burger, but we’re not getting suddenly technical around here.

A second honorable mention for a burger inspired by Cafe Bavaria in Wauwatosa, where they have a build-your-own burger option. The menu features a Braunschweiger melt, which is just as it sounds, braunschweiger with melted muenster cheese. We used that as our inspiration and had a Braunschweiger Smashed Burger – 1/3 pound beef patty, braunshweiger, muenster, lagered onions and Dusseldorf mustard on a pretzel bun. The result was “meatiness squared” as the braunschweiger just amped up the burger to another level.

Now those last two are pretty representative of our local ethnic traditions, locally produced food, and put together in new ways. Maybe we’re talking about Great Lakes Cuisine here after all.


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