First the basics: As every Houstonian knows, a hamburger or burger is a sandwich—a cooked patty inside a bun. The patty is usually made with ground meat, and can be grilled, pan-fried or broiled. Cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and bacon might be added, along with condiments like ketchup, relish, mayo or mustard.
Today, there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of hamburger variations ranging from the simple offerings of a basic burger joint to the gourmet creations of high-end restaurants. When people from outside the U.S. are asked what they think Americans eat, they all seem to think we subsist on nothing but burgers. That might not be strictly true, but let's admit it, hamburgers are pretty close to our hearts, and we all have our favorite place to eat them.
The Very First Burger
Hamburgers are named after Hamburg, Germany's second largest city, but that is only a tiny piece of the tale. We need to go right back to the ancient Egyptians, thousands of years ago, to begin this story.
Yes, the Ancient Egyptians are believed to be the first to enjoy ground meat, and through the ages, ground meat has been shaped into patties. These patties varied in shape, ingredients and names from country to country. In those days, meat was ground with a sharp stone or knife rather than a grinder.
Early burgers date back to Eastern Mongolia. Genghis Khan and his army of ferocious Mongol warriors would put flat lamb patties under their saddles as they rode and the bouncing of their saddles would pound and tenderize the meat. It is said that these early patties were brought into Russia and called steak tartar after the Mongolian Tartar warriors.
This dish then traveled on to Germany—hence the Hamburg connection, which is to come later. By the 15th century, ground beef was a delicacy all over Europe. Arabs used it to make a ground lamb dish known as kibbeh, a precursor to the hamburger that we still eat today. However, the Germans used pork and beef instead of lamb.
The city of Hamburg, Germany, was a debarking port for Germans heading to the U.S. It was the Germans who brought the Hamburg steak over here with them. The original hamburger was a tenderized piece of meat that had been pounded with a hammer, rather than being chopped or ground. This is how hamburgers arrived in the States and how the name stuck.
Hamburgers Take Shape Stateside
According to the Oxford English dictionary, Hamburg steak was defined in 1802 as "salt beef from inferior meat." This Hamburg steak was a slab of lightly smoked, salted ground beef, eaten raw or cooked.
It is believed this type of meat was served to immigrants on ships in the mid-1800s. The fact that the meat was salted and lightly smoked meant it would keep for a month or more. The meat was tough and often minced with onion and breadcrumbs to stretch it further.
Eating stands were popular along New York City harbor to attract German sailors who sought "steak cooked Hamburg style." Actually, old German cookbooks had various recipes for ground meat pie which were pretty similar.
And Salisbury Steak, Hamburger's Cousin?
Dr. James H. Salisbury created chopped beef patties in the 1800s to help with diarrhea in soldiers. These patties were made out of disease-free animal meat, and the muscle fibers were used so there would not be fat, cartilage or connective tissue in the mix. The patties were seasoned before being broiled.
Salisbury thought that eating beef patties three times a day would result in a healthy constitution. Since the ingredients are so similar, Salisbury steak is considered a close relative to modern burgers.
What happened next? Well, the meat grinder was invented in the late 1800s, meaning everything required for the modern hamburger was in place apart from the bun.
Early Hamburger Restaurants
Delmonico's in New York City is credited with serving the first recorded Hamburg steak in 1837. They used to serve beefsteak for 4 cents or a burger for 10 cents. White Castle griddled their burgers over a layer of onion in the early 20th century. The onion steam helped keep the meat moist. Hamburgers were easy to eat while traveling, so they were associated with being on the road.
In-N-Out Burger, the Wigwam Drive-In and Wimpy chains were also gaining popularity around that time, and drive-in restaurants were popular in the 1950s. You could get ketchup, mustard and mayo at the counter, and ask for grilled or raw onions in your burger. If you wanted lettuce, onion and tomato, you'd need to request a "California burger."
The 1960s saw the introduction of the BK Whopper, although the Gardenburger didn't make an appearance until 1981 in Oregon. Of course, McDonald's, founded in 1955, needs no further explanation.
Houston's Hottest Hamburgers
Although Houstonians never seem to agree on where to get the best burger, there are a number of worthy contenders. If you want to chow down on something simple, head to Whataburger, locally owned Fuddruckers, Smash Burger or Five Guys.
If you want something different, there are enough places to eat a different burger every day for a year (probably). Bernie's Burger Bus makes their burgers daily using Black Angus beef. Try the Detention if you're especially hungry—two patties with cheddar cheese, Bourbon-glazed onion and your choice of fixings including lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and mustard.
Carnivores will also enjoy the Ritual burger served at Ritual in the Heights, a generous half-pounder with smoked brisket, bone marrow glaze, caramelized pit onions and blue cheese fondue. Try the Cease and Desist burger at Hay Merchant—with twice the meat (or vegan protein) and twice the cheese, y'all won't leave hungry!
Hubcap Grill is another worthy option and has more burger variations than you can shake a stick at. Choose the Sticky Burger for an unusual peanut butter, cheese and bacon-topped patty, or the Texas BBQ Burger if you want a local taste.
Then you have Hopdoddy, which also favors Angus beef, Petrol Station with their lamb burger, and a thousand and one other possibilities. Longtime favorites include Miller's Cafe and Stanton's City Bites, whose burgers are halal. If you're a burger fan living in H-Town, you aren't going to go hungry anytime soon.
The Popularity of Burgers Today
And after all that, it's back to the golden arches! So did you know that McDonald's restaurants serve 68 million people every day and they're located in 119 countries? McDonalds, Wendy's and Burger King are the biggest three hamburger chains today by volume. And would you believe this?: Americans eat about 13 billion burgers annually. Yes it's true, line that number of burgers up and they will circle the Earth more than 32 times!
Americans spend $134 billion a year on hamburgers, which is more than they spend on computers, college education or new cars. It seems this fast food favorite, which started out as basic immigrant fare, is now firmly entrenched in our hearts. Hamburgers might have had the most humble beginnings but they have never been more popular than they are today.