The origin of the hamburger is clouded by history and controversy. In Medieval times the Tartars, a band of warriors from the plains of Central Asia would place pieces of beef under their saddles while they rode. This would tenderize the meat that would then be eaten raw. This is the legend of the origin of the modern dish, Beef Tartare.
In the nineteenth century, German immigrants brought a dish called Hamburg Style Beef to the United States, which had traveled to the seaport city of Hamburg, Germany from Russia. This dish was a raw, chopped piece of beef and is believed to be the primitive ancestor of the modern hamburger.
Now several people who claim to be the descendants of the hamburger's inventor dispute what happened next. The story used to be that the first hamburger was served up at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. This sandwich was made with a cooked patty of ground beef on a hard roll. Of course there are earlier references to hamburgers, but this might be where it hit the big time. Where the first burger was made, however, is the source of many arguments
New Haven, Connecticut's Louis' Lunch (a restaurant dating back to 1895) claims that Louis Lassen served up the first hamburger in response to an impatient customer's hurried lunch order. The Library of Congress supposedly verifies this, giving credence to this claim. Two other claimants hold that the burger popped up at fairs in 1885. One in Seymour, Wisconsin made by Charlie Nagreen and the other at a fair in Hamburg, New York made by the Menches Brothers. My opinion is that the hamburger is probably much older than all these stories, but no one bothered to write it down. Which ever story you want to believe, there is no small amount of fame (and marketing) in being named the origin of the Hamburger.
Mass distribution of the fast food hamburger started with White Castle in 1921. White Castle was such an immediate success that dozens of imitators jumped up and quickly failed. This tiny hamburger originally sold for 5 cents. Later the tell tale holes were added to the patty to speed up cooking times and eliminate the need for flipping.
In 1934 the Wimpy Burger appeared. Named for Popeye's hamburger eating friend, this burger went for the upscale market at 10 cents a burger. In keeping with the founder's wishes, all 1,500 restaurants were closed down when he died in 1978. The 1930's also saw the advent of the drive-in. Drive-in's changed the landscape of burgers forever by allowing diners to remain in their cars and therefore creating the concept of drive up service that remains the mainstay of today's fast food industry.
By the late 1930's, Bob Wain of Bob's Big Boy, introduced the first double patty burger. Variety in Hamburgers was beginning and like White Castle the Big Boy found a lot of imitators. But it wasn't until 1948 when the first McDonald's opened that the modern fast food Hamburger was set to revolutionize the way we eat. This first McDonald's didn't sell Hamburger's though; it was a Hot Dog stand. Ray Kroc, who would create the McDonald's empire, joined the team in 1954. By then the Hot Dogs had been replaced by Hamburgers. The Big Mac was introduced in 1968.
If you doubt the importance of the Hamburger on American Culture then consider this: Americans on average eat 3 hamburger's a week. And McDonald's alone has sold 12 hamburgers for every person in the world. Nearly 7% on the United State's workforce had their first job at McDonald's. Hamburgers account for nearly 60% on all the sandwiches eaten. So next time you pick up a hamburger, remember it's not just a sandwich, it's an economy. And don't forget the fries. French fries consume 7.5% of the United States Potatoes.