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A hamburger is a grilled patty of ground beef served with lettuce, onions and a mountain of french fries. This is the staple diet of many college students whose culinary skills are limited to pouring ketchup on their fries, or nine-to-five people who simply have no time to cook. The hamburger was probably the most well-known of all fast food during the era of the drive-in and diners. At that time hamburger restaurants were portrayed as warm, homely places where close-knit families went together to eat.

And yet centuries ago, beef came as steak and buns were bread, and the notion of grinding up meat and sticking it inside a loaf was unheard of. How did the hamburger become round and acquire a bun and chips? What were the humble beginnings of today's most popular fast food?

Where the Hamburger Came From

The history of hamburgers is somewhat hazy and debatable since there is no clear documentation to chronicle its origin. However, many claim that the first hamburger 'patty' was born in medieval times when the Tartars (a band of Mongolian and Turkish warriors) placed pieces of beef under their saddles. The meat, tenderized when the warriors rode, would then be eaten raw, oblivious of the dangers of food poisoning.

The ancestor of the modern hamburger arrived at American shores in the 19th Century when German immigrants brought with them a dish called Hamburg style beef, which, in turn, had been brought to Hamburg from Russia some time around the 14th Century. It was in America that this raw, chopped piece of beef would evolve over time to become the succulent patty sandwiched in a bun that we call a hamburger.

Now, it has been established that the development of the hamburger took place in America around the turn of the last century, but there is great dispute over what happened after the German patty arrived in America.

Among the chief claims are:

*Wisconsin claims that it is the 'Home of the Hamburger', and that the first modern hamburger was made by Charles Nagreen in 1885. According to this claim, Nagreen, at the age of 15, started a meatball business at the Outagamie County Fair, but his business was a flop because meatballs were hard to handle when one was strolling around. Inspiration struck, and Nagreen flattened the meatballs, stuck them between a couple of slices of bread, and named it a 'hamburger'. The innovation apparently turned the business around, because Nagreen's County Fair hamburger business continued yearly until his death in 1951. Today, Wisconsin boasts a Hamburger Hall of Fame, and holds an annual burger festival in August, with events including 'the world's largest hamburger parade'. This record is held by a hamburger weighing 5,520 pounds which was served in the 1989 burger fest, and remains unchallenged to this day.

*Another possible origin of the hamburger is traced to Frank and Charles Menches of Stark County, Ohio. In 1885 Frank and Charles travelled a circuit of fairs, selling sausage patty sandwiches at fairs, meetings and picnics. Legend says that while selling sandwiches at the Erie Country (Hamburg, New York) fair, the brothers ran out of pork one day when butchers found it too hot and humid for slaughtering pigs. Undaunted, the brothers simply substituted the sausage patty with ground beef, and named it 'hamburger' after Hamburg, New York, where the fair was being held.

* Another claim dates the history of the modern hamburger to 1890 when Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut, served the first 'burger' at his New Haven luncheonette, Louis' Lunch, when he ground up some beef and served it in the form of a sandwich to a customer who had to eat on the run.

* In a departure from the trend of claims that the hamburger was born in America, we find that a restaurant cook in Hamburg, Germany, named Otto Kuasw was making his own hamburgers in 1891. This was a thin patty of ground beef sausage fried in batter and sandwiched between two slices of lightly buttered bread along with a fried egg. This sandwich, known as Deutsches beefsteak, was the favourite snack of sailors who stopped at the Hamburg port. It is said that the sailors brought tales of this famous hamburger to America in 1894 when they visited the port of New York and told restaurateurs there about Kuasw's sandwiches. Needless to say, the restaurant chefs began making these hamburgers for the sailors.

*The most popular story of the hamburger is that of the 1904 St Louis World Fair. It is the belief of most Texans that the credit for the first hamburger goes to Fletch 'Old Dave' Davis from Athens, Texas, who decided to try something new for once. Taking raw hamburger steak, he grilled it to a crisp brown, and then sandwiched the patty between two thick slices of home-made toast and added a thick slice of raw onion on top. Patrons loved the new sandwich and word spread like wildfire, causing Old Dave to open a hamburger concession stand (at the urging of family and friends) at The Pike, at the St Louis World Fair Louisiana Purchase Exhibition that year. He is also credited as the inventor of french fries, selling fried potato strips along with his hamburgers at the world fair, an idea given to him by a friend in Paris, Texas. Unfortunately, the reporter covering the story mistook Old Dave's friend's homeland for Paris, France, and so the potato strips were henceforth known as 'french fries'.