The humble hamburger has never really been humble. It started life as a delicacy, and it has a history which originated with – yes, you guessed it – Hamburg, Germany.
Hamburg, of Course!
In the mid 19th century, a revolution in Germany resulted in an increase in German immigrants to the U.S. With them came their foodways, including high quality meat from Hamburg. U.S. butchers chopped the meat by hand for customers who delighted in eating it raw, a la steak tartare. It was also prescribed by doctors, for the anemic. At the time, there was no bun in sight, not a pickle or mayonnaise, tomato or leaf of lettuce.
Along came James Salisbury, doctor and proponent of cooking the raw meat for the anemic, claiming it released the same amount of iron when consumed that way. Cooked “hamburger” became Salisbury steak. Remember that? It was always so boring…like a hamburger without a bun!
From then on, the history of the hamburger gets blurry, but let’s just think “Thank goodness for White Castle.” In 1921, a Mr. Billy Ingram began selling square Salisbury steak-like patties between buns, and the hamburger was born. White castle is still a family-owned cult destination for the hamburger.
World War II and Hollywood
And therein lies a very brief history of the hamburger which has become a world-wide symbol of American cuisine, thanks in large part to World War II, when Americans brought the hamburger full circle, as part of their rations. Thanks, too, to Hollywood. I cannot count the times I’ve been asked, since living in France, whether or not it is true that Americans subsist on hamburgers. (Depending on my mood and my audience, sometimes I say yes, sometimes no!)
The Hamburger Now Belongs to the French
America no longer owns this iconic sandwich, however. When you sit down today at a café in France, there is every likelihood that along with the steak tartare, the steak frites, the steak au poivre, and the open-faced sandwiches called “tartines,” there will also be on offer the hamburger, or “ombear-gear” as it is pronounced (see Steve Martin in the Pink Panther to get a pronunciation lesson).
As with so many dishes imported to or created in France, a French hamburger can be a thing of delicious wonder. And sometimes, it is just what the doctor ordered, for the pure pleasure of its juicy tenderness.
Try our version here…then move along to the other suggested versions which will open up a whole new burger universe for you.