The Hamburger: A Family Affair


The Hamburger: A Family Affair

By Michael Sigler
Thursday Review Correspondent

Some of my fondest memories are the years spent growing up with my brothers and sisters. When you live in close quarters with a family of seven, you come to see very early in life that although your lives are linked genetically, your personalities, likes and dislikes can and usually are so very different.

That was very apparent when it came to foods. While all of us were living at home, we were pretty much required to eat what was set before us. Those formative years settled forever the idea of what we did and did not like, so when we launched out on our own, I am sure each of us was determined that we knew where we were going when it came to food.

At that time none of us had trained in the culinary arts, so we did not enter life with a lot of cooking knowledge. We were on our own, and it would be hit or miss. When we entered into partnership with another person, we became linked with someone else who had their own ideas of what they did and did not like, or whether they liked to cook or were something of a liability in the kitchen.

Because my brother Patrick is an accomplished Culinarian, I know much more about his eating preferences. As for the rest of the family, I am in the dark. It was fun researching this chapter because it gave me some insight into the habits of my siblings besides providing me with a good laugh or two.

I open this chapter with a quote found on the window of a New Hampshire hamburger restaurant, “Yes we are open. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Everyone who has ever eaten or cooked a hamburger has his or her own idea of what is the best, what the secret sauce is, or should it be grilled, flame-kissed, or stuffed.

Whenever someone is venturing out the first time into cooking his or her own meals, they will inevitably pick the hamburger as their starting point. After all who can mess up a hamburger?

Let me introduce you to Norm, husband of my dear sister Sally. Now there are a lot of things he can do well, especially with his skills as a firefighter. Firefighters are renowned for their heroism and valor. Anyone who witnessed 9-11 can attest to that, but firefighters also possess a reputation as very good cooks. Some fine meals have come out of firehouses across the nation.

Norm’s story has been passed down through his fire station for over 30 years. When Norm hired on to the Newport Beach Fire Department in 1975, being a rookie, he was expected to cook for the guys. Like many of us guys, Norm had a mother who did nearly everything for him.

Not knowing how to cook, he decided to fake it, deciding the best route to success would be to make hamburgers. As he tells it, he had no idea that hamburgers shrink when cooked. He made up his patties and when they were finished, they came out way too high and about as big around as 50 cent pieces. The other firefighters had a field day with this, dubbing them “dots on a bun.” This has turned into one of those urban legends that every new rookie has heard about. I wonder if Norm owns a grill?

The history of the hamburger is shrouded in controversy. Some say the inventor is either Louis Lassen, someone named “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen or the Menches Brothers.

Others believe it began with the Mongols who stashed raw meat under their saddles as they went out to conquer the world. Legend says that the Mongols under Kublai Khan later brought their meat to Russia, turning it into the dish we now know as steak tartar. I’m not sure I would want to eat anything that had sat under the rear end of some Mongol warrior.

As the world became more global and trade picked up, certain seafarers brought the meat back to the port city of Hamburg where the Duetschvolk decided to mold it into a steak shape, add heat and make something which was first referred to as “Hamburg steak.” In his book “Hamburgers & Fries,” John T. Edge, says all of that is wishful thinking.

As I mentioned earlier, there are currently three major claims to the confusing and contradictory history of the American hamburger. They are as follows:

“Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen: Legend has it that he started selling meatballs at the age of 15 at the summer fair in Seymour, Wisconsin. Charlie was a very resourceful young man with a salesman’s personality. He did not have a great deal of success with the meatballs, but had an idea which would incorporate bread. If he smashed the meat together between two pieces of the bread, then people could take their food with them. He called it a “hamburger” and yes, in 1885 the hamburger was born at the fair in Seymour, Wisconsin.

Our second major claim was called Louis’ Lunch: A burger joint in New Haven, Connecticut claims to have invented the burger meal in 1900. The story says that one day in first year of the twentieth century, a man in a hurry dashed into a New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal he could eat on the run. The owner Louis Lassen sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread, sending the customer on his way, into the culinary history books with the first hamburger.

The last challenger in our hamburger whodunnit concerns the Menches Brothers. No, this is not a salsa band or a group of Mexican bandits, but the Menches brothers claim that their great-grandfather and his brother (Frank and Charles, respectively) invented the dish at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, New York. After running out of sausages, the brothers were forced into using ground beef. After deciding the meat was too bland, a decision was made to spice it up with brown sugar, coffee and a few other household ingredients and then put it in a sandwich. The customer was wont to ask what this was called. Looking up at the banner for the Hamburg fair he said “This is the hamburger.”

So there you have it. Fact or fiction? I cannot say, but just as many opinions exist as to where and when the burger first came into existence. I’ve heard many such notions like the concept that the burger was invented by the Roman army because it was a simple way of eating and marching. Somehow I cannot visualize the entire Roman army marching and pillaging while munching on a Big Mac or a Whopper.

How about this one? The hamburger was first served in Hamburg, Germany in bars; it was called the German Frigedella. The name probably comes from an old ship name, possibly a sailing ship called a Frigge. Some even say the burger was invented in Turkey, but my vote for the most likely candidate is probably Seymour, Wisconsin, which many consider the hamburger capitol of the world.

If you’re looking for the best burger in the country then try the Midway Tap in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Whatever you believe, just remember to take a cue from Norm, make them big enough, so they do not shrink.