One of the greatest staples of every American-themed restaurant is one of the United States’ most fascinating culinary exports, and like most American foods, its strength is in how such a simple food can be personalised and customised in so many different ways.
However, as with many American foods, the history of the hamburger is exceptionally controversial, disputed, and spans several international culinary traditions and nearly two millennia.
Where did the Hamburger come from? Why is it named after a major German port? And when did it become a staple of American food?
The origins of the burger, surprisingly enough, may lie in Ancient Rome. Apicius, a collection of ancient recipes that are believed to date back to the fourth century AD, contains a rather familiar-sounding recipe.
The recipe Isicia Omentata is a baked mincemeat patty made from beef, pine nuts, peppercorns, garum (a rich fish sauce) and white wine formed into a patty shape.
To a degree, it makes a lot of sense that this would be a Roman invention; it was the type of food that was ideally suited to be cooked and served at a thermopolium (street food vendor) and eaten on the go, similar to chicken legs, shellfish and lamb chops.
The connection to the Port of Hamburg may have emerged around 1869 as a popular meal for people travelling from Hamburg (often to America) known as Rundstück warm, or a warm bread roll.
This meal initially consisted of beefsteak but quickly changed to use a flattened meatball-style dish known as Frikadeller.
Hannah Glasse, the author of The Art of Cookery, described a very similar dish, made with minced beef, nutmeg, black pepper, garlic, salt and cloves that was served with toast and named “Hamburgh Sausage”. This would be the first reference to Hamburg and the burger as we know it.
When travel to the New World became a regular fixture in the 19th century, many European emigrants took their culinary tastes with them leading to the rise in popularity of the Hamburg steak in the United States.
This eventually was turned into a sandwich by Louis Lassen’s lunch wagon Louis’ lunch in 1900 and has been credited by the United States Library of Congress for creating the hamburger as we know it.