Burger Business

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Cheeseburger platter

A cheesburger platter at the River City Café in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

My oldest son David, now a teen, was not fanatically fond of hamburgers when he was little. He observed that raw ground beef “looks like worms.” Now, however, he eats hamburgers happily. Second son Jonathan has adored hamburgers since he had teeth. Daughter Sarah likes 'em OK, but since the mad-cow-disease scare she is less enthusiastic about beef. Me, too, though I still eat beef sometimes — such as when we are in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at the River City Café, which has great-big, good burgers.

When I was a youngster in the rather rural Southern area where we lived, hamburgers were not generally available. It wasn't until I was a young teen that a local Wimpy's appeared, selling, of course, burgers, shakes, drinks, fries, etc.

My then-boyfriend Henry and I ate there occasionally, enjoying curb service and satisfying cheeseburgers. One of the most daring things I did as a teen (not involving Henry) involved Wimpy's. One summer morning I put a light-weight trench coat on over my nightgown and went out and had a curbside burger brunch at Tightsqueeze, Virginia, the location of that restaurant. Nobody knew how bold I felt, out there “in public” in my sleeping clothes.

Gus Burger

The famed Gus Burger at the White Spot in Charlottesville, Virginia sports a generous layer of fried egg.

As I grew older (and hopefully wiser) I saw more and more burger places pop up. By the time Henry and I were married and living in Biloxi, Mississippi, Dunnaway's Drive-In, up the road in Ocean Springs, was a popular burger joint of long standing. Delicious, non-commercial-tasting burgers!

A little later, in the '70's, we ate huge, high-quality, tender, beefy burgers at the Chopping Block in the Downtowner Burgundy Hotel, in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Burger Beginnings

According to one account, the hamburger was first sold at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York, in 1885, by brothers Frank and Charles Menches. The two Ohio brothers had arrived on the grounds of the fair too late to get a supply of chopped pork for their sandwich concession. The butcher sold them beef instead, and after some experimentation they formulated a sandwich, which they named after the Buffalo, New York, suburb where they were doing business.

Hamburg's claim to be the site of the first hamburger is disputed by the town of Seymour, Wisconsin, where a man named Charles Nagreen is claimed to have served hamburger sandwiches in 1885.

Another story about the origins of the ubiquitous burger states that in the late 1800's Fletcher Davis, a potter in Athens, Texas, wasn't selling enough pottery. Therefore he opened a lunch counter. His specialty? A ground-beef patty served between slices of home-made bread. In 1904 Davis went to the World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, with his recipe, which was, of course, a big hit. At the Fair the ground beef sandwich was deemed the hamburger, because in Hamburg, Germany, ground beef patties were popular, though the patties there are more like meat loaf and lack a bun. (It is believed that 19th-century German sailors learned about eating raw shredded beef, “Steak Tartare,” in the Baltic Provinces. A German cook eventually had the idea of cooking the Tartare mixture.)

Fletcher Davis is also credited with serving fried potato strips at the World's Fair. A friend in Paris, Texas, had given him the idea, but a reporter thought that Davis said “Paris, France,” and those potatoes are forevermore “French Fries.”

Another contender in the “hamburger invention” contest is Louis' Lunch, a Yale off-campus eatery. This New Haven, Connecticut, site is said to have first offered the burger in 1895.

The commercial bun on which hamburgers are now served was created by diner operator Walter Anderson of Wichita, Kansas, who also invented the modern grill (both events around 1916) and then established the chain of White Castle hamburger restaurants.

Lionel Clark Sternberger, later proprietor of the Rite Spot steakhouse in Los Angeles, experimentally tossed a slice of cheese on a hamburger he was cooking at his father's short-order shop in Pasadena, California, in 1924, thus originating the cheeseburger.

The word “cheeseburger” was patented by Louis Ballast in 1944. Ballast grilled a slice of cheese onto burgers at his Denver, Colorado, drive-in.

Well, you know the rest — McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, White Castle, etc. — burgers everywhere. Some good, some so-so. But certainly an all-American favorite. A “classic.”