From Ancient Rome to the Big Mac: The Origins of the Hamburger | History Hit

From Ancient Rome to the Big Mac: The Origins of the Hamburger

Shannon Callahan

16 Feb 2022
U.S. advertisement for 7-Up from 1957.
Image Credit: Alamy

A hamburger is simply minced beef formed into a patty and sandwiched between two slices of bread. Yet how did America’s favourite dish get onto every fast food menu the world over, and when was it first invented?

10,000 years ago, humans began domesticating cattle, which eventually led to minced beef dishes being popularised the world over. Foods bearing similarities to the classic hamburger can be traced back to ancient Rome, the armies of Genghis Khan and medieval Europe.

By the early 20th century, the hamburger had become a popular dish across the United States. It soon became a staple of fast food menus around the globe, and it’s now estimated that 50 billion burgers are eaten every year in the US.

Here is the history of the hamburger, from ancient Rome to the Big Mac. 

Ancient Rome and the Isicia Omentata

Cleopatra’s Banquet by Gerard de Lairesse, circa 1675-1680.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An ancient version of the hamburger can be traced back to Rome around the 1st century AD in a dish called Isicia Omentata. This meal resembles the modern-day hamburger as it was made from minced meat, pine nuts, pepper, wine and garum. The recipe for this dish was published in a cookbook called Apicius and can still be made today.

Genghis Khan and the origins of steak tartare

Genghis Khan might seem a strange connection to the Big Mac, but in the 12th century, as his soldiers set out to conquer Asia and Eastern Europe, his army contributed to the foundations of the hamburger. The Mongol army rode, sometimes for days, without getting off their horses, requiring meals that could be eaten with one hand.

As a solution, the soldiers kept raw scraps of lamb or mutton underneath their saddles which tenderized the meat. They would eat the meat raw while they continued to ride. When the Mongols arrived in Russia in the 13th century, Russians were inspired by these horsemen’s meals to create steak tartare.

As trade routes opened up, steak tartare would travel to Hamburg, where the recipe would be adapted into the Hamburg steak. 

The Hamburg steak

In the 12th century, Hamburg became an important, independent trading city in Germany. As with other trade ports, culture and goods were exchanged, and the Russians likely brought their steak tartare to the Germans.

Title page and frontispiece to Mrs Hannah Glasse’s Cookery Book c. 1777.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the 19th century, beef was minced, combined with garlic, onions, salt and pepper, and formed into patties – without buns or bread – to make gourmet Hamburg steaks, which are called ‘bulette’ or ‘frikadelle’ in German. The recipe for this popular dish even made its way to England and was detailed in a cookbook for the first time in 1763 Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy.

German immigration to the US

Political revolutions across Germany in the mid 19th century led to an increase in immigration to the United States. The Hamburg steak, salted or lightly smoked, was ideal for the long sea voyages across the Atlantic and was eaten by many German immigrants. With their arrival, they brought many aspects of German culture to America, including beer gardens and, of course, the ‘Hamburg-style’ chopped steak. 

In 1845, G. A. Coffman invented a version of the meat grinder that made it possible to mince beef at home. Further, the Industrial Revolution introduced factory labour, and the new labour force faced an obstacle in eating, as workers in Chicago and New York needed meals they could eat quickly with their hands. As a result, is believed that patties were placed between two slices of bread for the first time, making the Hamburg sandwich.

An advert for a universal food chopper by Manufactured by Landers, Frary & Clark, New Britain, Conn., U.S.A., 1899.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There are many who claim to have invented the hamburger, from two gentlemen at a county fair in New York to a restaurant owner in Connecticut to a couple creating flame-grilled beef patties to celebrate the Fourth of July in Oklahoma. In reality, the hamburger as we know it likely emerged in the last decades of the 19th century almost simultaneously, new labour structures necessitated new ways of eating.

The emergence of the fast food burger

From lunch wagons to fair stands to roadside restaurants, the burger got a prime-time feature when it was served by Fletcher Davis in 1904 at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, alongside many other new foods including waffle ice cream cones and cotton candy.

The sandwich’s success took off from there, although the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair almost stopped the burger from being eaten. In this novel, Sinclair exposes the Chicago meatpacking industry, revealing that minced meat was more likely to have filler, preservatives and scrap meat, making it unsavoury and potentially hazardous to Americans.

However, in 1921, White Castle opened in Kansas, introducing a system for on-premise meat grinding. This restaurant became a bastion of hygiene and America’s first fast-food restaurant chain. One of the co-founders of White Castle, Walter Anderson, even invented a bun specifically for hamburger patties. White Castle helped put to ease any uncertainties over eating beef patties in America, and the result was the increased consumption of burgers and the popularity of fast food dining in the States.

The fast food boom after World War Two

As millions of American soldiers fought in World War Two, they brought their favourite comforts with them, including the hamburger.

After the war, the White Castle system for on-premise meat grinding was copied by other chains that opened after World War Two, like McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger: both were founded in 1948. Franchised fast food was now an American staple, with the hamburger at the top of the menu, and chains like McDonald’s were able to expand globally because of the introduction of this American classic during the war years.

The first drive-in hamburger bar in America, courtesy of McDonald’s.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, the Big Mac was invented in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Jim Delligatti for McDonald’s, and now 550 million Big Macs are sold in the US each year. America’s love of this fast food classic emerged from thousands of years of farming, immigration, new technology and adaptation.

Its popularity has even led to the creation of other meat and nonmeat patties like turkey and veggie burgers. No matter the toppings, served with fries and a soft drink, the hamburger is a staple of the American diet.

Shannon Callahan