A history of hamburgers – “like normal history but meatier”


The rise of the hamburger is not only a story of mass production, portability and convenience – it is also inextricably linked to attitude.

A great American icon, it shares a platform with the Harley Davidson Motorcycle, the Fender Stratocaster and Ray-Ban sunglasses as a symbol of freedom, individuality and frontier spirit.

Swaggering around with a hamburger is your way of saying: “Hey, do you think I’m the kind of guy that uses cutlery? You do? Well… you’re completely wrong. Watch me eat my burger, with just my hands! I bet you’re feeling pretty foolish now!”

There is no doubt about it, the burger is among the most badass of foods – especially when you consider its origins.

Like many foodie developments, the idea of squishing together meat and some flavourings has probably been simultaneously ‘invented’ in many different continents in the distant past.

My favourite origin story is the one that suggests that a ‘proto’ burger was developed by well-hard Mongul horsemen who terrorised The Steppes during the 12th Century. 

Because they were so busy with all the killing and the shouting, leaving them little time to prepare a simple nutritious meal, they would wedge a slab of meat beneath their saddles for later. 

After a day of riding about, the meat would be beautifully tenderised and ready to eat – a bit like putting it into a slow cooker – only with the piquant aroma of arse and horse sweat. 

The idea of putting the meat inside a sesame bun would have to wait for the invention of the sesamie bun. Generations of Mongul warriors would have to endure the irritation of greasy fingers – serving to make them even more angry presumably.

Fast forward 500 years to 1747 and 500 miles west to London where the Hamburg Sausage surfaced with the publication of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery. The author came so close to achieving the ‘inside a bun’ concept with a recipe placing a smoked sausage of ground beef, suet, pepper and other aromatics on top of a slice of toast.

A century later, in 1845, in Virginia, Mr GA Coffman patented his imaginatively named ‘Machine for Cutting Sausage-Meat’ in response to increasing demand for convenient food but it wasn’t until Charlie Nagreen, from Wisconsin, came up with the idea of squashing a beef meatball between slices of bread so his ill-mannered customers could walk around whilst eating – that the first hamburger was born.

He would later insist that everyone called him “Hamburger Charlie”, in much the same irritating way that pint-sized jazz crooner Jamie Cullum claimed that people had begun referring to him as “Sinatra in Sneakers” when it was clearly a name he had made up himself for marketing purposes.

But the first guys to shove a burger inside an actual bun – Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram – opened up a White Castle restaurant in Wichita, Kansas and changed the course of ‘hamburger history’ – which is like normal history but meatier.

It wasn’t long before others caught on, with the first branch of McDonald’s opening for business in San Bernardino, California in 1948 and Burger King opening in Miami and London in 1954.

In the year of love, 1967, McDonald’s found a way of making the hamburger twice as good by sticking two of them in a bun and calling it a Big Mac – there was no where to go after that, we had reached peak burger.

Unless…. there’s some way of making a hamburger three times as good?

It’s good to dream.