Why We Love Hamburgers: New York's Earliest Burgers

Local chain Joy Burger turns out a modern-day burger, possibly one of 7,000 places in the city that do.

As the name suggests, the hamburger originated in Hamburg, Germany, perhaps late in the Middle Ages, when mincing techniques usually used to make pork sausage were applied to beef, which was formed into patties and most often eaten raw as a sort of steak tartar, according to Richard J. Hooker in Food & Drink in America (1981).

Or did it? As Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont point out (Eating in America, 1976), if you buy a hamburger in Hamburg, it's called an "American steak." (They go on to acerbically note, "The fact that 'hamburger' has given rise to senseless words like 'cheeseburger' is one of the many signs that betray the increasing degeneration of the American language.")

But where did it start if not Hamburg? According to a story that's hard to pin down, vendors along Manhattan's Lower West Side waterfront sold hamburgers -- sans bun -- as early as the 1820s to homesick German sailors. Many of the ships that visited the piers around what is now Chambers Street at that time were from Germany and other North Sea countries, and it makes sense that food vendors would greet German ships with familiar food.

Other stories also suggest a New York origin for the cooked hamburger patty as we know it. Charles Ranhofer, celebrated chef of Delmonico's, listed a Hamburg steak on an 1870s menu for 11 cents (other stories, perhaps apocryphal, suggest the item may have been on the menu as early as 1834). Josh Ozersky (The Hamburger, 2008) traces recipes for patties that look an awful lot like hamburgers back to an English cookbook published in 1763. So perhaps the cooked hamburger patty is an idea that occurred spontaneously in several places.

Next: Buns arrive, maybe first in Upstate New York

In this 19th century, this Delmonico's had an important place in hamburger history.

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