Why We Love Hamburgers: New York’s Earliest Burgers


Local chain Joy Burger turns out a modern-day burger, possibly one of 7,000 places in the city that do.

As the name suggests, the hamburger originated in Hamburg, Germany, perhaps late in the Middle Ages, when mincing techniques usually used to make pork sausage were applied to beef, which was formed into patties and most often eaten raw as a sort of steak tartar, according to Richard J. Hooker in Food & Drink in America (1981).

Or did it? As Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont point out (Eating in America, 1976), if you buy a hamburger in Hamburg, it’s called an “American steak.” (They go on to acerbically note, “The fact that ‘hamburger’ has given rise to senseless words like ‘cheeseburger’ is one of the many signs that betray the increasing degeneration of the American language.”)

But where did it start if not Hamburg? According to a story that’s hard to pin down, vendors along Manhattan’s Lower West Side waterfront sold hamburgers — sans bun — as early as the 1820s to homesick German sailors. Many of the ships that visited the piers around what is now Chambers Street at that time were from Germany and other North Sea countries, and it makes sense that food vendors would greet German ships with familiar food.

Other stories also suggest a New York origin for the cooked hamburger patty as we know it. Charles Ranhofer, celebrated chef of Delmonico’s, listed a Hamburg steak on an 1870s menu for 11 cents (other stories, perhaps apocryphal, suggest the item may have been on the menu as early as 1834). Josh Ozersky (The Hamburger, 2008) traces recipes for patties that look an awful lot like hamburgers back to an English cookbook published in 1763. So perhaps the cooked hamburger patty is an idea that occurred spontaneously in several places.

Next: Buns arrive, maybe first in Upstate New York

In this 19th century, this Delmonico’s had an important place in hamburger history.

Hamburger stand, Alpine, TX, 1939. Photo by Russell Lee/Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress

By the 1880s, hamburg steaks appeared in several American cookbooks. Later in the same decade, pursuant to the wildfire popularity of sandwiches in America, a bun was applied to the hamburger for the first time, making the hamburg steak plus bun a truly American invention. According to Andrew F. Smith, writing in Hamburger: A Global History (2008), four states claim credit for creating the bunned burger:

Texas: Invented by Fletcher Davis at his lunch counter in Athens, Texas, 1880s
Wisconsin: Charlie Nagreen in Seymour, Wisconsin, 1880s
New York: Frank and Charles Menches, Erie County Fair, New York, 1885
Connecticut: Louis Lassen, New Haven, Connecticut, 1890

In the interim, many innovations have ensued to create the delectable dish we cherish today. White Castle created the first fast-food hamburger — steamed rather than fried — in Witchita, Kansas, in 1921, taking the trademark appearance of the chain’s castellated stores from the Chicago Water Tower, by legend the only building left standing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Big Boy chain was initiated in Glendale, California, in 1937, offering a lusher fried-rather-than-steamed burger. It was the first place to offer the iconic “combination” of burger, fries, and shake for a fixed price. After that, fries and burger were never sundered, even by onion rings.

Then along came McDonald’s, and lots of other chains, which also changed the face of burger retailing, still an ongoing process. And nowadays, New York is ground zero for hamburger innovation, spawning patties of novel composition and wreaking newfangled changes on an old favorite. Our city is clearly now the best place to be in the world if you want to enjoy hamburgers, and lots of them.

How many eateries are offering burgers in the city at this moment? If you ask Menupages, you get 1,158 hits; my guess is that the true number is seven times greater, based on previous extrapolations using Menupages data. So let’s say around 7,000 places serve burgers today out of a total of 50,000 restaurants in the city. If someone can make a more accurate estimate, please do!

The very name of Depression-era homegrown hamburger chain Hamburg Heaven suggests the Germanic origins of the burger. The last branch closed recently.