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Celebrating Hamburger Day, Week and Month

If you’re looking for something to celebrate in May, look no further than the humble hamburger. May is National Beef Month and National Hamburger Month. You can plan seven days of diner visits during National Hamburger Week, the second week of May. Or, fire up the grill on May 28, National Hamburger Day.  Not enough for you? Don’t worry: Americans love burgers so much that July 28 and December 21 have also been designated Hamburger Days. If you like cheese, make note that September 15 is National Double Cheeseburger Day and September 18 is plain old National Cheeseburger day.  Whew—that’s a lot of beef!

 Life without burgers is hard to imagine. You’d need to go back more than 10,500 years, before cattle were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, an area in the Middle East which included ancient Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Egypt. The ancients weren’t making all-beef patties in a bun with special sauce, of course. But dishes using leftover beef scraps mixed with spices were common and economical. The Roman cookbook, Apicius, dating back to the 4th Century, contains a recipe calling for minced beef cooked with pine kernels, peppercorns, wine and garum (fish sauce) called isicia omentata.  

Chopped beef dishes, both raw and cooked, can be found world wide. The Mongol soldiers under Ghengis Khan had a meat dish that skipped the dish altogether. Riders would put meat, and sometimes onions, wild garlic and other foraged ingredients, in a bag under their saddles. The pounding and heat of the ride would tenderize and partly “cook” the meat, which could be eaten handily on horseback. Some say that when Ghengis Khan’s grandson, Khublai Khan invaded Moscow in the 13th Century, the Russians adapted the raw meat dish and dubbed it “Steak Tartare,”  “Tartar” being another name for the warrior horsemen. 

In the 17th Century, Russians may have introduced the dish to the Germans via the port city of Hamburg, well known for its beef and sausages. Germans cooked and further modified the chopped beef and it became known as “Hamburg steak.” When German immigrants left from the port of Hamburg for the United States, they brought the ground beef preparation with them. 

In 19th Century America, “Hamburg steak” sometimes abbreviated to “Hamburger” started to show up in restaurants and recipe books. It’s hard to say who was the first to put a flattened beef patty between slices of bread. Sometime in the latter half of the 19th Century someone—or several someones—finally did. In 1900 Danish immigrant Louis Lassen served hamburger steak sandwiches at his lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut. A few years later, during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the Tyrolean Alps Restaurant served plain hamburger steak (60 cents) or a version with onions (75 cents). “Hamburger sandwiches” were also sold at the Fair, likely served by a man named Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis who ran a lunch counter in Athens, Texas. 

The big break for burgers came from J. Walter Anderson, of Wichita, Kansas, who created a bun specifically for his burgers. He opened his own hamburger stand 1916 and ground the beef on site so customers could see how clean and well-run his operation was. In 1921 he partnered with Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram who reimagined the stand as a castle and thus White Castle was born. The partners proudly advertised the cleanliness and standardization at all their restaurants. By 1930 White Castle was a popular nationwide chain. Countless equally successful competitors quickly popped up.

McDonald Brothers Richard and Maurice started their burger and barbeque restaurant in San Bernardino, California, in 1940. In 1948 they phased out the barbeque to focus on burgers, fries and shakes. Salesman Ray Kroc sold the McDonald brothers mixers for their shakes, but was so impressed by the operation he began selling McDonalds franchises and opened his own McDonalds in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois.  In 1961 he bought the entire company for $2.7 million. 

 But inexpensive fast food isn’t all there is to burgers. Chef Daniel Boulud introduced his signature DB Burger in 2001 for an astonishing $27. The gourmet burger, was, at the time, the most expensive in the world. It incorporated short ribs braised in red wine along with several other cuts of meat and was stuffed with foie gras. When truffles are in season, you can add some to the DB Burger and bump the price tag north of $100. Despite the cost—it goes for $35 today—the beloved creation is still on the menu at Boulud’s restaurant DB Bistro Moderne.

 A more modest stuffed burger, closer to home, is the Jucy Lucy. Or, Juicy Lucy, if you prefer. The hamburger stuffed with hot, melted cheese was invented in South Minneapolis, either at Matt’s Bar (they make the Jucy Lucy with no “i”) or at the 5-8 Club (Juicy Lucy with the “i”). The mostly friendly rivalry has gone on for years and most people are happy to support both versions as well as the many variants that have popped up at burger joints around the Upper Midwest.

 It’s clear that burgers aren’t going anywhere, whether they are topped with caviar and a 24-karat gold dusted bun, or topped with greasy fried onions and American cheese. There’s no wrong way to celebrate this month. But if May’s burger extravaganza has you beefed out, relief is coming.  National Veggie Burger Day is June 5.

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