How the Burger Became America's Favorite Restaurant Food

History of the Hamburger
••• Robert Owen-Wahl via Pixabay

It could be argued that the only food more American than apple pie is the classic hamburger. An American menu staple since the mid-twentieth century, burgers helped build the fast food concept and made franchises like McDonald's and Burger King household names all over the world. While the burger as we know it today goes back to the early 20th Century, the concept of a hamburger goes back to ancient times. Over the years, the burger has evolved to match the changing culinary landscape of the United States — including meatless, organic and gluten-free versions. With the rise of fast casual dining, burgers have once more been reinvented into a hipster meal for a new generation.

Early History of the Hamburger

The earliest versions of the modern hamburger are attributed to Genghis Khan, who was the leader of the Mongolian Empire during the thirteenth Century. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols established an empire stretching from the East coast of China to the edge of Eastern Europe. It is said that this fierce Calvary army would ride for days without ever stopping to take a meal. To stave off hunger, the Mongolian soldiers placed scraps of meat formed into small patties underneath their saddles. The meat was often lamb or mutton, which would be tough eating raw. By leaving it under their saddles while they rode, the meat would be tenderized by the time they were ready to eat. This is the origination of the well-known dish Steak Tartare, which was an adapted version of the Mongolian patties. Russian chefs added eggs and onion to the raw meat mixture over years.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the concept of meat patties spread to other parts of Europe. In the late 18th century, the city of Hamburg, Germany was among one of the busiest seaports in Europe. The cooked, seasoned meat patties became known as “Hamburg Steak” and German immigrants brought the simple meal idea with them to America over the next one hundred years.  

History of the American Hamburger

It was in America that the modern-day Hamburger — a meat patty served between two slices of bread — was born. There are several states that claim to be the birthplace of the American Hamburger including the town of Seymour, Wisconsin and Akron, Ohio. Akron is home to the Menches Bros. Restaurant, which claims their ancestors, Frank and Charles Menches invented the hamburger in the early 1880s, after running out of sausage to sell during a local county fair. Still another claim to the invention of the American Hamburger comes from Oklahoma, who declared that original hamburger was served in Tulsa in 1891.

Despite all the early claims of the invention, the classic fast food hamburger we are familiar with today is most often attributed to Sam Kroc, the CEO of McDonald's. However, Kroc did not invent the fast food burger — though he did make it much less labor-intensive and cheaper to produce, bringing about a revolution in the way Americans ate. Credit for the original fast food burger goes to Walter Anderson and Edgar Waldo Ingram, both of Wichita Kansas. They founded White Castle Hamburger in 1921, making it the oldest Burger chain in the United States.

Current Burger Trends  

Americans have always enjoyed a good burger, but with the rise of cheap and easy fast food during the 80s and 90s burger popularity in mainstream restaurants declined. With the recession of 2008, many traditional comfort foods were reinvented on the menus of some of the trendiest restaurants in the nation. This resurgence, coupled with the public’s growing concern about food safety, obesity and healthier food options, has led to a burger renaissance with the rise of Fast Casual chains like In-n-Out Burger, Elevation Burger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. These chains serve classic burgers with minimal fuss, focusing instead on simple, wholesome ingredients and budget-friendly prices.

Beyond fast food and fast casual, there are many family-style sit-down eateries like Red Robin and Fuddruckers who have built their menu largely around hamburgers. Red Robin offers a wide selection of upscale burgers, including the Southern Charm Burger — featuring an Angus patty topped with candied bacon, honey BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese and caramelized onions. Burgers have also helped fuel the Food Truck revolution, making simple street food uber fashionable.

Not Your Average Hamburger

Burgers are the perfect blank canvas for chefs to show off their culinary skills. In an age when consumers, particularly Millennials, want their food to have a story, burgers deliver. Rather than a burger with cheese, lettuce and tomato, you can now order a burger that is grass fed, organic, served on a homemade artisan bun made with non-GMO flour. Or how about an Angus beef patty topped with frizzled onions and house-made pickles?

Today burger patties are more than just beef. They can be made of goat, lamb, venison, buffalo, chicken, turkey, the list goes on and on... And gone are the days of frozen veggie patties as the only meatless option for your token vegetarian guest. Today’s meatless burger options include things like ground chickpeas stuffed with beet-infused couscous or pumpkin and quinoa patties topped with local goat cheese and house made beet relish. Along with a classic beef patty and fries, you are as likely to find a burger that is totally vegan, Paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, or all of the above.​

From tasty Big Kahuna Burger in Pulp Fiction to Krusty Burgers in The Simpsons, burgers are an indelible part of the American identity. With humble beginnings in Ancient Asia, the burger has evolved into a classic comfort food. Helping spawn an entirely new dining concept, burgers became the staple of American Fast Food, helping busy moms get dinner on the table in a timely fashion. With the recent economic recession, Americans once more turned to burgers for comfort, seeing the rise of fast-casual burger chains offering fresh, wholesome ingredients in lieu of the cheap and easy fast food. Today, there is a burger for every occasion and every palate. Undoubtedly burgers will continue to evolve to suit new menu trends, but the classic burger and fries will always be an American favorite.