The hamburger is one of the world’s most popular foods, with more than 40 billion served up annually in the United States alone. Although the humble beef-patty-on-a-bun is not much more than 100 years old, you can’t tell the story of its origin without outlining a far greater lineage, linking American businessmen, World War II soldiers, German immigrants, and medieval traders.
Prior to the disputed invention of the hamburger in the United States, similar foods already existed in the culinary tradition of Europe. The Apicius cookbook, a collection of ancient Roman recipes that may date to the early 4th century, details a preparation of beef called isicia omentata; served as a baked patty in which beef is mixed with pine kernels, black and green peppercorns, and white wine. This nutty and peppery meat-pie may be the earliest precursor to the hamburger.
In the 12th century, the nomadic Mongols carried food made of several varieties of milk and meat (horse or camel). The cavalry-dominated Mongol army of Genghis Khan was fast moving and typically unable to stop for a meal, so they often ate while riding. They wrapped slices of meat under their saddles that, under constant pressure and motion, would crumble and get cooked by the heat generated from the constant friction. This "recipe" for minced meat spread throughout central Asia. When Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan (1215–1294) invaded Moscow, he and his warriors introduced minced horsemeat to the Muscovites. This was later called steak tartare.
Russian ships brought recipes for steak tartare to the port of Hamburg, Germany during the 17th century. The Germans took to this ground meat product and created many of their own dishes by adding capers, onions and even caviar to the blend. During the first half of the 19th century, most of the northern European emigrants who traveled to the New World embarked on their transatlantic voyages from the port of Hamburg .
New York City was the most common destination for ships traveling from Hamburg, and various restaurants in the city began offering the Hamburg-style steak in order to attract German sailors. The steak frequently appeared on the menu as a Hamburg-style American fillet, or even beefsteak à Hambourgeoise. Early American preparations of minced beef were therefore made to fit the tastes of European immigrants, evoking memories of the port of Hamburg and the world they left behind.
The hamburger as it is known today has multiple invention claims ranging between 1885 and 1904, but it is clearly the product of the early 20th century. It seems to have made its jump from plate to bun in the last decades of the 19th century, though the site of this transformation is highly contested. Lunch wagons, fair stands and roadside restaurants in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Ohio, New York and Texas have all been put forward as possible sites of the hamburger’s birth. Whatever its genesis, the burger-on-a-bun found its first wide audience at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which also introduced millions of Americans to new foods ranging from waffle ice cream cones and cotton candy to peanut butter and iced tea.
Two years later, though, disaster struck in the form of Upton Sinclair’s journalistic novel "The Jungle," which detailed the unsavory side of the American meatpacking industry. Industrial ground beef was easy to adulterate with fillers, preservatives and meat scraps, and the hamburger became a prime suspect.
The hamburger might have remained on the seamier margins of American cuisine were it not for the vision of Edgar “Billy” Ingram and Walter Anderson, who opened their first White Castle restaurant in Kansas in 1921. Sheathed inside and out in gleaming porcelain and stainless steel, White Castle countered hamburger meat’s low reputation by becoming bastions of cleanliness, health and hygiene (Ingram even commissioned a medical school study to show the health benefits of hamburgers). His system, which included on-premise meat grinding, worked well, and was the inspiration for other national hamburger chains founded in the boom years after World War II: McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger (both founded in 1948), Burger King (1954) and Wendy’s (1969).
Led by McDonald’s (and helped by the introduction abroad of U.S. hamburger culture by millions of members of the American armed services during World War II), the hamburger—and American-style franchised fast food—soon spread globally. By 2013 there were more than 18,000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide.