Who Invented the Hamburger? An Investigation with 5 Suspects
Who invented the hamburger? Considering how simple a dish the sandwich is—all it really requires is a cooked beef patty on a bun—the answer is actually pretty complicated, if it's even knowable. Depending on how far you dig, there can be anywhere from 6 to 10 parties claiming to be the main character in the hamburger origin story. With cookout season upon us, I decided to put on my detective hat and figure out once and for all who the real inventor of the hamburger is.
Suspect #1: Fletcher Davis
The Scene: Athens, Texas, late 1880s
The Story: For reasons unknown, Fletcher Davis, owner of a luncheonette in rural Texas, allegedly began putting fried beef patties on buns for his customers close to the end of the 19th century. Then, in 1904, Davis took his creation to the World's Fair in St. Louis, where its popularity exploded. Hamburger fever spread across the country soon after.
The Argument For: Many great inventions made their debut at the World's Fair, including the telephone and the Ferris wheel. It's reasonable to put the burger on that list as well, and the 1904 World's Fair is frequently cited as the jumping-off point for the burger's popularity in America.
The Argument Against: A couple things here: first, the Davis case relies mostly on oral history and narrative, which is prone to hyperbole. Second, what happened between the late 1880s and 1904? The burger is unquestionably delicious; so why didn't word of Davis's creation get out sooner?
Suspect #2: "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen
The Scene: Seymour, Wisconsin, 1885
The Story: Fifteen-year-old Charlie Nagreen was selling meatballs at the Seymour Fair, and sales were not very good. To salvage a day spent pulling an ox cart full of meat to the fair—remember, this is 1885—Nagreen allegedly tracked down some bread and smushed the meatballs between slices. "Hamburger Charlie," as he was known thereafter, had created a legendary sandwich.
The Argument For: The city of Seymour has a statue of Nagreen adorning some park space, so they're serious about this. And in the debate over who invented the hamburger, it's hard to argue against someone with "hamburger" as their nickname.
The Argument Against: First of all, is this even a burger? Meatball subs are delicious and they have their place, but it's not in this investigation. But where we're really not connecting the dots on this one is in the naming of the sandwich. Apparently, Nagreen called it a hamburger simply because ground steak was a popular dish both in Seymour and in Hamburg, Germany. Could a 15-year-old really be that globally aware (especially in 1885)? Hmm. Hmm, indeed.
Suspect #3: Charlie and Frank Menches
Neither likely nor unlikely
The Scene: Hamburg, New York, 1885
The Story: Another 1885 state fair, another case of on-the-fly entrepreneurial thinking. After selling out of sausages at their stand, brothers Charlie and Frank Menches improvised with a grilled-ground-beef sandwich. When asked by fair attendees what this new item was called, the brothers named it after the town in which it was served.
The Argument For: Along with good timing and story plausibility, the Menches' case serves as the hinge for an entire chain of Menches burger stands in northeast Ohio.
The Argument Against: Some accounts pin the above story to a fair near Akron, Ohio, not Hamburg, which muddles things. Another reason to be skeptical of the Menches' story? They also claim to be the creators of the waffle cone, another treat with murky origins.
Suspect #4: Otto Krause, AKA Otto Kuase
The Scene: Hamburg, Germany, 1891
The Story: This one's pretty simple: according to some, a cook living in Hamburg named Otto Krause—or Kuase, depending on who you ask—decided one day to fry some hamburg steak in butter, top it with an egg, and toss it on a bun. German sailors brought the idea along with them to the States, and the rest is history.
The Argument For: Firstly, we've got an honest-to-goodness Hamburger—meaning someone from Hamburg—here! From an authenticity standpoint, that's big, since it gives a plausible answer to the question "where was the hamburger invented?" Secondly, this story is backed by a legit heavyweight in the burger world: White Castle. The iconic American burger stand has made it known that they think it was Krause who created the snack.
The Argument Against: What's up with the different spellings of this guy's name? If such an important detail can turn into a typo over the passage of time, what else about this story isn't 100% accurate? A simple story can turn into a tall tale when its tellers travel across an ocean.
Suspect #5: Louis Lassen
The Scene: New Haven, Connecticut, 1900
The Story: This one's pretty simple: back in 1900, a hungry businessman rushed into Louis' Lunch, a small New Haven eatery, asking for something that could be made quickly and eaten on the go. Thinking on his feet, Louis Lassen put some grilled ground steak between slices of toast and bam: the first burger was (maybe) born.
The Argument For: Louis' Lunch is probably the most well-known burger-origin candidate—it's been featured on the Travel Channel and in publications like Food & Wine Magazine. There's also the fact that the Library of Congress recognizes it as the official birthplace of the hamburger. That's pretty important.
The Argument Against: This one sounds good, right? It's believable and it's got lots of high-profile support. But 1900? Surely someone somewhere could have put grilled ground beef on a bun before then. Louis' Lunch has a strong case, but we'll take it with a tiny grain of salt for now.
So there you have it—in the case of the burger's creation, my highly detailed, highly scientific investigation has pinned Louis Lassen as the sandwich's true creator. Probably.
What do you think? Who really invented the hamburger as we know it? Make your case in the comments: