A Brief History Of Hamburgers

One of the peculiar quirks of posh boarding schools – euphemistically referred to as public schools despite the fact that it’s unaffordable to most of the public – is the absolute insipid swill which is called mess food.  Ask any hosteler.

The chapatis would be tougher than leather and would’ve served well as bulletproof vests, the daal’s state vacillated between solid and liquid, and on special nights deigned “continental”, they’d be served coagulated noodles which would stick together so cohesively that even a centrifuge wouldn’t be able to separate them.  Perhaps it was part of a grander design to toughen up insouciant princelings and prepare them for the real world – whatever that is.

This would mean most of us would always have bated breath and salivating tastebuds as our vacations approached when we could go home and finally eat acceptable grub. 

For me, the sole raison d’etre to return home was the taste of freedom, which for me was biting into a burger, made my father. Around 25 years ago, this involved a lot of effort on my pater’s part – who collected ingredients from the length and breadth of the city when grocery delivery apps weren’t the norm – and was hellbent on ensuring that my return home would be a celebration of gluttony.

It wasn’t just a sandwich of bread and meat, but a taste of freedom with a dollop of paternal love, a side of nostalgia and, with the promise that no matter how hard life gets, or how bad the term was, it would always end with a delicious burger.

And any burgerphile worth his bun will tell you, the perfect burger – structurally, gastronomically, and ecumenically – is a work of art and when done right is beyond divine

To borrow the words of Marshal Eriksen from How I Met Your Mother: “I mean... that first bite-oh, what heaven that first bite is. The bun, like a sesame freckled breast of an angel, resting gently on the ketchup and mustard below, flavours mingling in a seductive pas de deux. And then... a pickle! The most playful little pickle! Then a slice of tomato, a leaf of lettuce and a... a patty of ground beef so exquisite, swirling in your mouth, breaking apart, and combining again in a fugue of sweets and savor so delightful. This is no mere sandwich of grilled meat and toasted bread. This is God, speaking to us in food.”

So, to commemorate the king of sandwiches, this week we are going to take a brief walk through the annals of history and see how hamburgers came to be.

 Hamburger – An Origin Story

Like Batman’s most iconic villain, The Joker, hamburgers have multiple origin stories. Of course, any tale involving a sandwich will have to go back to English aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich who made the only acceptable British culinary achievement in history when he decided to put meat between bread to avoid soiling his fingers while playing cards. And so was born the idea of the hamburger.

The hamburger – which structurally passes all sandwich tests – clearly started with the Hamburg-style steak, a common meal for sailors and travellers in the city of Hamburg, Germany. As German immigrants settled in America, they brought along their culinary traditions and the hamburger steak became quite popular in New York which consisted of a fried patty of chopped beef, eggs, onions, and seasoning.

The oldest document that refers to it is from the Delmonico Restaurant menu from 1873 which was developed by American chef Charles Ranhofer and it cost 11-cent per plate, a tidy sum in those days.

After that it gets murky, and the name of the original inventor is lost in time. However, some of the contenders are:

1) Louis Lassen, a Danish immigrant in Connecticut who created a portable meal of a hamburger steak between two pieces of toast, in 1900.

2) Charles Nagreen, who used to sell meatballs at Seymour’s Fair in Wisconsin, who flattened the meatballs and sold them as a sandwich between two pieces of bread.

3) Charles and Frank, the Menches Brothers, who were vendors at the 1885 Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York, who ran out of sausages and used ground beef instead. The term however was popularised when Fletcher Davis served hamburgers at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.

The first franchise to make hamburgers a fast food, perhaps the one that invented the concept of fast food with a Ford-like assembly-line production, was White Castle.

Another useful addition was the cheeseburger, which was created in Sheldon Cooper’s adopted homeland, Pasadena, California in 1924 at a restaurant called The Rite Spot. As an interesting tangent, closer home the cheeseburger often causes confusion because a lot of folks tend to believe it’s a vegetarian offering.

But if White Castle which popularised the fast-food hamburger, it was McDonald’s – the Paul to White Castle’s Jesus – which took it all over the globe as a symbol of capitalism, gluttony, obesity, and everything else we hold dear about America.

McDonald’s wasn’t in the fast-food business but in the real-estate business. Everyone in the world probably could make a better burger than McDonald’s but few could deliver it everywhere they wanted and in time it became a triumph of capitalism over communism when the first McDonald’s opened at Moscow’s Pushkin Square.

Thousands queued up to eat there, and it felt like eating America “itself”. As photographer Mitya Kushelevich recalled, the lines were huge, but Russians were used to queuing up for rations

“Once inside we were blown away by the number of young cashiers behind the huge counter, smiling, moving like bees, serving one meal after another. Nothing like our fat old ladies in white gowns sitting in front of empty shelves, pyramids of dusty canned food as window dressing. I still remember how insanely huge the milkshake looked and I didn’t know how to hold a Big Mac with my tiny hands. Everything tasted more intense than anything I’d ever tried before. I ate and drank and chewed like it was my last meal on earth. Around ten minutes and 5,000 calories later, my body alerted me to the fact that it wasn’t quite able to digest all the fatty deliciousness and that it was probably a good time to check out how an American toilet looked like from the inside. I wasn’t alone: the queues to the toilets, especially the women’s, was almost as long as the queues outside.”

And so, hamburgers went forth and multiplied not unlike other American franchises like oil greed masquerading as democracy, gluttony-induced obesity, morality, and gender studies that frowned upon binary heteronormativity.

It became synonymous with America, so much so that American high schools have a five-point essay writing style called the Hamburger Style Essay while the Economist – ostensibly British but always ready to pander to Americans – came up with the Big Mac Index, a rudimentary way to see which currencies were under or overvalued.

Hamburgers would play very important roles in culture as well, becoming the cornerstone of a nutritious breakfast as Quentin Tarantino used Samuel Jackson’s unique baritone and maternal love to mock America’s disinclination to use the metric system and to teach French (A Royale With Cheese).

Meanwhile, in Harold and Kumar Goes To White Castle, it becomes the centre of a gustatory pursuit which truly captured the beauty and the hope of the Great American Dream. Fun fact, Kal Penn is a pure vegetarian – hopefully this won’t infuriate the Sudha Murthy critics – ate vegetarian burgers, a novelty when the movie was shot. Of course, many years later, the Impossible Burger with plant-based meat, would end up on the menus of most fast-food joints.

And like all exports, burgers became immensely popular in India, but not before it underwent a drastic change, dropping the ham from the name and undergoing a total culinary metamorphosis.  

Going Desi

Now burgers had existed in India long before McDonald’s. It’s not like they invented the desi burger but they did come up with a version that’d be acceptable to most Indians, irrespective of caste, creed or spending power. Pre-McDonald’s, most elite Indians probably tasted burgers at either chains like Nirula’s or in five-star hotels who’d still do decent quarter-pounder burgers. But again, it was the preserve of the well-heeled.

And then McDonald’s entered the scene. At the core of it was the McAloo Tikki, which debuted at Rs 20 in 1999, and made eating fast food feasible for many people who’d shudder to step into a restaurant.

Today, the McAloo Tikki is sold across the world as a vegan option and it has made its debut in America as well, which one website described as “a vegan burger served on toasted bun and filled with a veggie patty made from potatoes, peas, and samosa seasoning; topped with fresh red onions, tomato slices and an eggless tomato mayonnaise”.

However, rosy things might look for McDonald’s in India now, there was a time when Indians weren’t loving it. The first McDonald’s launched in 1996 and they soon realised they’d have to switch up their game in India to stay relevant. This led to a scenario where  70% of McDonald’s products in India were originally developed to suit the Indian palate, something that didn’t happened anywhere before, and McDonald’s is so omnipresent today that its grammatically wonky present continuous slogan “I am Lovin’ It” is part of an Indian’s everyday lexicon.

Today, the burger scene in India would make Uncle Sam jealous. You can have a variety of burgers, vegetarian and nonvegetarian, loaded with butter chicken flavour, keema, Korean fried chicken, tenderloin, plant-based and even an elaborate burger served with shimeji mushroom, truffles, English cheddar, and gold warak (a limited-edition Louis Grand Royale).  

Either way, it’s a testament to the burger’s versatility that it managed to create its own niche in the land of vada pavs and samosas. Dutch scientist, historian and writer Louise Fresco wrote in her 2015 book Hamburgers in Paradise, the hamburger became ubiquitous because of its versatility: “The history of the hamburger is the story of a continual quest to reinvent a food item by sophisticated means, leaving the end product apparently unchanged and therefore completely dependable for the consumer while almost invisibly introducing one innovation after another.” Nowhere is this more evident than India.

And for burgerphile like me, who thankfully no longer has to live with the tyranny of boarding school mess food, every time I take bite from a burger, I am transported back to all the burgers I ate as a child. Sure, reality has a way of washing away the fantasies of youth. But even today, all these years later, every time I take the first bite of a burger, it still tastes like freedom. And maybe that’s all we need to be happy.