The hamburger turns 100 this year. Well, sorta.

Ground beef has been around for centuries, but exactly when and where the hamburger was born is hard to pin down. Several folks across the country — from New Haven, CT, to Tulsa, OK — confidently claim their ancestors invented it.

If a ground beef patty served between two slices of bread is a hamburger, then credit goes to Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, WI, who sold hamburgers at the Outagamie County Fair in 1885. Seymour calls itself the “Home of the Hamburger,” holds the record for the world's largest hamburger, and hosts a hamburger festival every year.

To be fair, though, descendants of county fair concessionaire Frank Menches, Akron, OH, and restaurateur Louis Lassen, New Haven, CT, also claim their ancestors invented the hamburger — served on bread — in 1892 and 1900, respectively.

But some say a hamburger really isn't a hamburger unless it's on a bun. If so, farmer and restaurateur Oscar Weber Bilby of Tulsa, OK, deserves credit for serving the first-known “hamburger on a bun” in 1891. According to www.whatscookingamerica.net, Bilby's burger was served on Mrs. Bilby's homemade yeast buns.

“From all the research that we can do, we actually think the hamburger probably sprang up independently in lots of different places around the country,” says Bev Pfeifer-Harms, a spokesperson for Hardee's, which proclaimed its signature Thickburger® the “official burger of the centennial celebration.”

Regardless of where it was invented, she says, most folks agree the hamburger was first popularized in 1904. That's when concessionaire Fletcher Davis of Athens, TX, served the hamburger at the St. Louis World's Fair. Davis spread a mixture of ground mustard and mayonnaise on slices of thick bread and topped the burger with cucumber pickles and a slice of Bermuda onion. It reportedly created quite a sensation.

After the World's Fair, newspaper reports helped spread the hamburger idea throughout the country, Pfeifer-Harms says.

In the 1920s, the hamburger was available at the quick-service restaurant chain White Castle and was often referred to as the “Wimpy burger.” The tag was in reference to the hamburger-loving character in the Popeye the Sailorman comic strip.

According to www.buildabetterburger.com, the 1930s brought drive-in hamburger restaurants with carhops on roller skates, and that was when cheese was first used on hamburgers. In fact, in 1935 a Humpty-Dumpty Drive-In in Denver, CO, actually tried to trademark the name “cheeseburger.”

By the 1950s, the hamburger was an American icon. Backyard cookouts were a favorite pastime, and major restaurant chains like McDonald's and Burger King opened.

The 1970s brought drive-thru windows. The 1980s brought the media burger wars, during which Wendy's introduced its unforgettable “Where's the Beef?” ad campaign.

Another big trend of the 1980s was gourmet burgers made of protein other than beef. Fortunately for beef producers, the Encyclopedia of Meat Labeling says the term “burger” means beef burger. So if you have a turkey burger, you must put the word turkey in front of it.

Still looking good

A century after its debut, the hamburger undoubtedly has maintained its attraction. In fact, Americans ate 13 billion hamburgers in 2003.

Food analyst Harry Balzer of the NPD Group says that kind of demand is what allows more national restaurant chains to sell hamburgers than any other food item, though pizza chains might come close.

“The hamburger is the number-one food ordered by men at restaurants in this country, and the number-two food ordered by women, only surpassed by one item — French fries,” he says.

The NPD Group reports that Saturday is the biggest day for burger sales at restaurants, where 73% of all burgers consumed in the U.S. are prepared and purchased. However, one of every five times Americans fire up the grill at home, they cook a hamburger.

Want fries with that?

It's no surprise that French fries are the favorite side item for hamburgers, and when it comes to toppings and condiments, there's no shortage of options.

According to a Hardee's survey, 48% of Americans say ketchup is their favorite hamburger condiment, followed by mayonnaise and then mustard. What's more, 83% of those surveyed say lettuce is their favorite topping, followed closely by tomato, and then pickle, onion, bacon, chili and salsa.

Of course, you can't forget the cheeseburger, which is in a league of its own. Research by the NPD Group indicates seven of every 10 commercially ordered burgers are cheeseburgers. And, American cheese is the pick for almost half of the Hardee's survey respondents, with cheddar trailing at 33% and Swiss at 11%.

No bun intended

One of the most recent developments in America's hamburger selection is the “bunless” burger, which adds a new twist to the old bun vs. bread debate.

Several restaurants now offer hamburgers minus the bun in response to the low-carb/high-protein dieting craze.

“When people say it out loud, ‘bunless burger,’ I cringe because that's not what a burger is supposed to be,” says beef consumer Aimee Gutowski. “You just assume the burger comes with the bun.”

An Atkins dieter who has lost 26 lbs. and has kept it off for almost a year, Gutowski admits she's made a lot of her burgers bunless since she started watching her carbohydrate intake.

“I will literally just peel off the bun and eat the meat, holding the meat in my hand,” she says. “That's really messy, but I'd rather do that than eat the bun.”

Observing the eating practices of low-carb customers like Gutowski prompted Hardee's to permanently include a low-carb burger on its menu last December.

“Obviously, you can go into any quick-service restaurant and ask for a sandwich without the bread, but you have to special order it that way,” Pfeifer-Harms explains.

Hardee's lettuce-wrapped Low-Carb Thickburger® includes a ⅓-lb. Angus beef patty and has a total of 5 grams of carbohydrates. Currently, it's one of Hardee's top three menu items.

Burger King, Wendy's, TGI Friday's and Chili's have added bunless burgers to their menus as well.

Nevertheless, Balzer says breadless sandwiches don't go over that well because it is a new way of eating a sandwich.

“Bread and meat go together quite often,” he says, noting that sandwiches are the No. 1 food overall in this country.

In the long-term history of hamburgers, though, the bunless burger isn't really an issue, Balzer says. People are already starting to question the staying power of low-carb diets, and for the most part, Americans are slow to change.

What Americans eat today is what they are going to eat tomorrow, though it might be modified slightly, he says. So as long as price and convenience allow, the hamburger will keep its place in America's diet.

Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.

Burger Benchmarks

1885 — Outgamie County Fair concessionaire Charlie Nagreen, Seymour, WI, sells hamburger steaks between slices of white bread so diners can eat while they stroll the fairgrounds.

1891 — The first known hamburger on a bun is born when farmer Oscar Weber Bilby, Tulsa, OK, serves ground beef patties on his wife's homemade yeast hamburger buns.

1892 — County fair concessionaire Frank Menches, Akron, OH, serves broiled hamburger patties on bread.

1900 — Louis Lassen, New Haven, CT, forms sandwiches of thinly sliced steak trimmings and serves them between slices of white bread.

1904 — The hamburger first garners national attention when concessionaire Fletcher Davis, Athens, TX, offers it at the St. Louis World's Fair. Davis spreads a mixture of ground mustard and mayonnaise on the slices of thick bread and tops the burger with cucumber pickles and a slice of onion.

1921 — White Castle in Wichita, KS, becomes the first quick-service restaurant chain to offer a hamburger.

1929 — “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” becomes the famous line of Wimpy, a character in the Popeye comic strip. Hamburgers become known as Wimpy burgers, perhaps the first use of the term “burger.”

1940 — The first McDonald's is built by the McDonald brothers (Dick and Mac) in San Bernardino, CA.

1950s — The hamburger becomes an American icon.

1952 — Weber introduces the first kettle grill for backyard cookouts, which were becoming a favorite American pastime.

1953 — The first golden arches go up at brothers Mac and Dick McDonald's first franchise in Phoenix, AZ.

1954 — The first Burger King opens in Miami. Ray Kroc becomes the first franchisee appointed by Mac and Dick McDonald.

1955 — Ray Kroc opens his first restaurant in Des Plaines, IL (near Chicago), and the McDonald's Corporation is created.

1963 — McDonald's serves its one-billionth burger on “The Art Linkletter Show.” The same year, Ronald McDonald makes his first TV appearance. In the costume is NBC personality Will-ard Scott.

1970 — Wendy's introduces the drive-thru window.

1984 — Wendy's introduces its “Where's the Beef?” ad campaign with feisty senior citizen Clara Peller. McDonald's sells its 50 billionth hamburger.

1996 — McDonald's opens an outlet in Belarus, its 100th country.

1998 — At the end of 1998, there are 23,000 McDonald's restaurants worldwide.

2003 — In response to popular low-carb/high-protein diets, Hardee's introduces its lettuce-wrapped Low-Carb Thickburger®, the first bunless burger to become a permanent part of a quick-service restaurant menu.

2004 — America commemorates the 100th anniversary of the hamburger's national debut. Burger King, TGI Fridays, Chili's and Wendy's add bunless hamburgers to their low-carb menus.

For more hamburger history, visit www.buildabetterburger.com and www.whatscookingamerica.net.
Diana Barto