The lowly hamburger, king of the American diet and the most prominent cultural icon the United States has shipped overseas, is celebrating its centenary this year — garnished, relished or topless.
Although the hamburger's ancestry can be traced back to 13th-century Russia and European tastes for raw steak tartare, it wasn't until the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair that the hamburger became popular for middle-class Americans.
David Hogan, a history professor at Heidelberg College in Ohio and a food historian, said that from modest beginnings, the hamburger became the icon of America around the globe — beating blue jeans and jazz as the item foreigners most identify as U.S. innovations.
"Meat on bread goes back millenniums," he said. "Meatball on bread was a common fare for factory workers and we know there were food carts outside of factories selling that" in the 19th century.
While some question whether the hamburger was really created at the St. Louis fair, it gave the meal a certain cachet. It took off after reporters flocking to the 1904 event celebrated as "the coronation of the century" listed the hamburger as one of the novelties they found, along with electricity, heavier-than-air flying machines, coin changers, electric clocks and automatic telephone answering machines.
There are several serious claims to authorship for the hamburger.
The hamburger chain White Castle traces the ancestry back to a Hamburg, Germany, cook named Otto Kuase, who in 1891 was celebrated for a sandwich made with a beef patty cooked in butter, topped with a fried egg. The German sailors brought the recipe to the United States, where the egg was dropped.
Residents of Seymour, Wis., home of the Hamburger Hall of Fame, argue that one of their hometown heroes, "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen, created the hamburger at age 15 when he served the first hamburger from a stand at the Outgamie County Fair in 1885.
Others give the honor to Frank Menches of Ohio, who resorted to replacing beef for the pork in his famous sausages during a heat wave, and took the result to the World's Fair. Connecticut relatives of New Haven restaurateur Louis Lassen say they have notarized statements backing up his claim to be the originator.
John Harmon, a Central Connecticut State University geographer who attempted to document the various claims, said he was unable to conclude who was really "the first." Harmon said there is evidence the hamburger was around in America in the late 19th century, but "the date of the 1904 St. Louis is clear, and this is when the 'world' became aware of the hamburger."
Within two decades, its popularity mushroomed thanks to another American invention: marketing. The most common meals of the time were sausages and hotdogs, reflecting the influx of Jewish and German immigrants. Americans were wary of what might be in ground-up meat thanks to Upton Sinclair's landmark expose of Chicago meat packers, "The Jungle."
Hogan said J. Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram partnered in 1921 to open the first White Castle hamburger restaurant in Wichita, Kan.
Built like a little castle, and painted white to suggest cleanliness, the restaurant served 2-ounce patties of meat with fried onions on a bun instead of slices of bread. To reassure customers of the high sanitary standards of the restaurants, the kitchen was brought out of the backroom into the serving area so people could see the food prepared.
Customers were entreated to "Buy 'em by the sack," 20 for $1, and the fad took off among college students, who dubbed the hamburgers "sliders" and "belly bombers."
The economic success of White Castle was such that soon there were imitators, including White Towers, White Huts, White Clocks, White Domes, White Diamonds, White Taverns, White Midgets and White Spots.
The first McDonald's stand appeared in California in 1937, followed by other innovations. The first drive-in was a Jack in the Box restaurant in 1951 in San Diego. Another hamburger stand called Insta-Burger King sprouted to life in Florida offering flame-broiled burgers that cost 29 cents each, but were "whoppers," beginning the Burger King chain.
Harmon Dobson of Corpus Christi, Texas, declared he didn't like using heat lamps to keep cooked hamburger patties warm until they were sold, and so started the Texas chain Whataburger in 1950. Big Boys and Burger Chefs, Steer Inns and Burger Queens popped up elsewhere.
Why hamburgers caught on is a mystery.
"It's really impossible to say why certain fads take off," Hogan said. "But by the end of the decade, the American Restaurant Association said the hamburger and apple pie were the two American foods. A decade earlier, both had been lower-class trash food."
Some still vilify the hamburger as trash, and a symbol of why the diet of most Americans is so poor.
Brie Turner-McGrievy, a registered dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said the proliferation of hamburger stands on American streets produced a food fight "over how much saturated fat you can pack in between two buns."
Some beef hamburgers contain more than 540 calories and 24 grams of fat that can contribute to hardening of the arteries, she said.
Some of the larger chains have heard the criticism, and offer veggie burgers and other options for those who want a less fatty diet.
"We've seen a huge growth in meat-free burgers in the last year," she said, pointing to a 113 percent increase in retail sales of veggie burgers in the last year.
But there are no signs that hamburgers are going the way of Hula Hoops anytime soon. Michele Peterson of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, in Chicago estimates that Americans ate 8 billion hamburgers last year — a pace of about 100 per person. In spite of scares over E. coli contamination or mad-cow disease, hamburger consumption has actually increased from 5 billion in 1995.
Fast-food restaurants accounted for 7 billion burger sales, and hamburgers outpace chicken nuggets in sales by a ratio of 3 to 1. The cattlemen's statistics show that last year, an estimated 800 million were eaten in June, compared to the low of 573 million in February.