Ground beef

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HAMBURGER. Humans have consumed beef in scraped, chopped, hashed, and minced forms since the domestication of the cow. Its main advantage was that it was an efficient way of using many smaller parts of the cow, including fat, organs, brains, and so on. To this mixture could be added parts of other animals, plants, spices, flavorings, and adulterations. The resulting product can be easily shaped into different forms and prepared in a variety of waysraw in steak tartare, molded into flat cakes or croquets, baked in a loaf, boiled and served in soups, barbecued or roasted and served on a bun, fried into meat balls, or stuffed into sausages with spices and herbs for later consumption.

Origin of Hamburger

The invention of the twentieth-century hamburger sandwich is the result of long developmental processes. Beginning in the fifteenth century, minced beef was a valued delicacy throughout Europe. In northern Germany, lightly fried chopped meat was called Frikadelle. Similar words are found in other European languages, and the root may be "farce," deriving from Latin farcere (to stuff). In English the term "forcemeat" was defined by Randle Holme in "The Academy of Armory" (Chester, 1688) as "meat with a stuffing of herbs, or other things made to that purpose."

Hashed beef was made into sausage in several different regions of Europe. In places such as Bologna, Russia, and Hamburg, beef was often combined with other meats and other ingredients. The German city of Hamburg was known for its beef sausage, which migrated to England by the mid-eighteenth century. One recipe, titled "Hamburgh Sausage," appeared in Hannah Glasse's 1758 The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It consisted of chopped beef, suet, and spices. Although the author recommended that this sausage be served with toasted bread, no evidence suggests that the sausage was served as a sandwich.

Hannah Glasse's cookbook was also among the most common in Colonial America, although it was not published in the United States until 1805. This American edition did contain the "Hamburgh Sausage" recipe with slight revisions.

The frequently cited "Hamburg Steak" on the Delmonico's restaurant menu dated 1834 was neither served as a sandwich nor composed of ground beef. With the popularization of the meat grinder in America about 1850, ground beef became a possibility. Recipes for it appeared in cookbooks from other countries, such as in Henriette Davidis's Praktisches Kochbuch für die Deutschen in Amerika. In American cookbooks, these recipes were frequently called "Beefsteak à la Hamburg." This recipe was so associated with the United States that the 1899 edition of Blüher's Rechtschreibung der Speisen und Getränke reported without explanation that chopped beefsteak was called "Hamburg steak" in America. Ground beef was also called "Salisbury steak," which was named in honor of the American physician James H. Salisbury (18231905), who wrote The Relation of Alimentation and Disease (New York, 1888). Salisbury believed that scraped lean beef, flattened into cakes and broiled, was among the best foods for those who were ailing. As scraping beef was a difficult task, common recipes for it just recommended grinding the beef, a process not recommended by Salisbury. Scraped or ground, Salisbury steak could be served with toast, but it was not served as a sandwich.

The Sandwich

The sandwicha filling between two slices of bread that can be consumed by handis said to have been popularized by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (17181792). This mode of eating became so popular in England that it was mentioned in several diaries and in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Shortly thereafter, cooks and hosts began experimenting with various fillings other than sliced beef.

Sandwiches migrated to the United States before the Civil War. In the mid-nineteenth century, sandwiches consisted of a filling composed of lean slices of cold meat between two thin pieces of bread flavored with mustard and ketchup. They were served in bars and saloons, where patrons could easily consume them without the need of knives, forks, or plates. During the late nineteenth century, interest in the sandwich rapidly expanded to include boned fish, sardines, cheese, boiled eggs, stewed fruit, chopped nuts, mushrooms, chicken, watercress, sardines, and jelly and jam. Many salads, such as chicken and lobster, were converted into sandwiches. By 1900, hundreds of different fillings were consumed in sandwiches.

Hamburger Sandwiches

Several legends have grown up concerning who first served hamburger sandwiches in America. A hamburger sandwich is defined as a hot ground-beef patty between two slices of bread. It is not likely that any of the early claims put forth are accurate: sandwiches were composed of thin bread requiring thin fillings. Thin bread would also not have been able to contain the juices exuded from hot ground hamburger.

The first known published reference to a "hamburger sandwich" appeared in an article in the New York Tribune, which noted that this "new innovation" was served at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. While it is possible that hamburger sandwiches were constructed well before this date at small stands and diners, the fair gave them national exposure and national diffusion resulted.

Hamburgers served in stands and diners in many regions of the United States attracted the working class. In a diner in Wichita, Kansas, a short-order cook named J. Walter Anderson flattened the meat balls and placed them in a bun; he developed the first commercial bun for hamburgers. In 1916 Anderson opened his own hamburger stand and sold them at five cents apiece to attract customers. To sell sandwiches at this price, Anderson streamlined his operation. To make certain that his clients were aware of what was contained in his hamburger, he ground his own beef and let his customers watch him doing it. His business was so successful that he opened three additional stands within four years. His success brought competitors, and the streets of Wichita had many hamburger stands. In 1921 he went into business with Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram. Ingram repackaged Anderson's hamburger stands architecturally into castles, and gave the operation the name "White Castle." Ingram insisted on standardization of all the stands, and he required employees to maintain strict standards of cleanliness, eventually requiring uniforms. This was extremely successful, and White Castle began expanding beyond Wichita. By 1924 the company had expanded to Omaha, then to Kansas City, then St. Louis, and the expansion continued. Ingram declared White Castle to be a national operation with forty-four outlets by 1930. He standardized the operation by opening meat-processing and bun-baking operations.

White Castle imitators, including some with the word "white" in their name, such as White Tower, spread across the United States. Ed Gold launched another hamburger chain, Wimpy Grills, in 1934. This featured the ten-cent "Wimpy" burger named after the cartoon character J. Wellington Wimpy, who immortalized the phrase: "I would gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today" in a Popeye cartoon released in 1929. Wimpy Grills was the first fast-food corporation to expand abroad. Another competitor was Bob Wian, who founded Bob's Big Boy chain in southern California in 1936. He featured an upscale double-patty burger and franchised his operation, which quickly spread from coast to coast.

Within a few decades of the launch of White Castle, the hamburger had become America's national sandwich. Through small hamburger stands and national franchise chains, hamburgers were sold through hundreds of outlets throughout America.


The prewar enlargement paled by comparison with the expansion of hamburger establishments after World War II. Returning from the war, many military personnel married, had children, bought cars, and moved to the suburbs. Focusing on those suburbanites with growing families and stretched incomes, Richard and Maurice McDonald designed a hamburger restaurant incorporating assembly-line efficiency into a commercial kitchen. This efficiency helped them to reduce their expenses and therefore permitted them to sell hamburgers at a low price. They hoped that the lower price would increase the number of customers, generating a greater volume with higher profits. To test their ideas, they opened an octagonal-shaped hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, in 1948. Their operation did not include indoor tables, and it required that customers line up to place their orders and then eat in their cars: this eliminated the need for waitresses, which further reduced their expenses. The McDonalds sped up the process of making hamburgers through a series of innovations. They also decided to concentrate on selling just a few items: hamburgers, cheese-burgers, French fries, sodas, and shakes. These efforts to streamline and mass-produce hamburgers paid off. In 1951, they grossed $275,000.

As efficient as their internal operation was, the McDonald brothers concluded that they needed a new architectural design for the outside of their restaurant. Richard came up with the idea of constructing "golden arches" right through the roof which sloped upward toward the front, thus creating one of the most well-known architectural symbols in the world.

With the success of their newly designed operation, the McDonald brothers made another important decision: they franchised their operation. Franchising permitted others to build McDonald's drive-ins throughout the nation that were based on the design developed in San Bernardino. Those receiving franchises paid the McDonald brothers a fee and a percentage of their sales. In 1953 newly-designed McDonald's franchises opened in Phoenix, Arizona, and Downey, California.

At this time, McDonald's was just one of several new fast-food hamburger chains. In Los Angeles, Carl Karcher started selling hamburgers in 1946. In San Diego, Jack in the Box had been launched in 1951 and sported the first drive-through service. Three years later in Miami, James McLamore and David Edgerton founded Insta-Burger King, which later evolved into the Burger King chain.

To make the shakes quickly, the McDonald brothers purchased Multimixersmachines that mixed six shakes simultaneously. Ray Kroc, a Multimixer salesman, visited the McDonald brothers' operation in 1954 and was so impressed with their efficient operation that he arranged with the McDonald brothers to sell franchises. In 1955, Kroc opened his own McDonald's restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois, and streamlined the operation even further. By the end of 1957, there were thirty-seven McDonald's. Two years later, the total exceeded one hundred establishments, and this doubled the following year. In 1961 Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million and opened Hamburger University in Elk Grove, Illinois. McDonald's operations throughout America rapidly expanded.

McDonald's success encouraged competition, and many other fast-food chains adopted methods developed by the McDonald brothers and Kroc. Dave Thomas opened his first Wendy's restaurant in 1962 in Columbus, Ohio. Fast-food establishments underwent tremendous growth beginning in the mid-1960s. By 2000 there were more than 11,800 McDonald's, 6,298 Burger Kings, and 3,721 Wendy's fast-food establishments in the United States. Since there are an estimated 160,000 fast-food restaurants, it is estimated that the first job of one out of ten Americans is in a fast-food establishment.


Despite the rapid success of fast-food and soft-drink enterprises throughout the world, hamburgers and fast food have been condemned almost from the beginning. Until the arrival of White Castle, many potential customers avoided hamburger stands because of the lack of cleanliness of some establishments. Also, as low cost was an important factor in the hamburger business, many sellers adulterated the ground beef with other ingredients, leading many Americans to consider the hamburger an unhealthy food. In 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs (1933), Arthur Kallet and F. J. Schlink claimed that hamburgers contained preservatives, which restored the color of the ground beef and destroyed the odor of spoilage.

Another concern has focused on fast-food advertising targeted at youth. McDonald's, for instance, developed cartoon characters such as Ronald McDonald. The "Happy Meal" with toys was launched in 1979. McDonald's has subsequently added children's play areas to many establishments and, like Burger King, has developed numerous tie-ins with major children's motion pictures.

Fast-food chains have been sensitive to a variety of health and environmental issues. For instance, McDonald's has reduced the fat content of its hamburgers, encourages recycling in some restaurants, refuses to buy beef from Brazil, and changed the wrappings of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders to make them more biodegradable.

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal maintains that the enormous growth of the fast-food industry has caused conditions in the big slaughterhouses to pose serious health concerns. Schlosser and others also blame fast food for a rise in obesity, which is among America's most serious health problems.

There has been heated criticism of the effects of fast food on local cultures and businesses. Serious nutritional, environmental, and cultural questions about fast food remain. As the homogenization of food choices continues worldwide, some consider the rapid expansion of fast-food chains as examples of an insidious American imperialism that is destroying local cultures and values. McDonald's success abroad has cause deep resentment by others who see the company as a symbol for the United States, and who believe that McDonald's expansion threatens local culinary traditions. In France, a sheep farmer named José Bové demolished a McDonald's restaurant that was nearing completion. Similar actions have occurred in other European countries.


Despite condemnation throughout the world, the hamburger sandwich is one of the most successful foods in the world. The attraction of the hamburger is that it is inexpensive, convenient, and filling. Hamburgers are also versatile. At the minimum, hamburger sandwiches consist of just cooked ground beef in a bun. To this can be added hundreds of sliced and diced vegetables, condiments and spices, the most common of which are tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, pickle relish, salt, and pepper. Hamburger sandwiches with special seasonings and ingredients have proliferated. In 1984, Gyula Décsy's Hamburger for America and the World catalogued more than eight hundred hamburgers in the United States alone. These were a small fraction of the variety of hamburgers available today.

Hamburger establishments also caught on quickly in Canada and the United Kingdom. McDonald's opened its first Canadian restaurant in 1967 and created its International Division in 1969. By 1988 McDonald's had 2,600 locations abroad. Six years later, that number exceeded 4,500 restaurants in 73 other countries. In 2002 there were more than 28,000 restaurants in about 120 countries. McDonald's has over 1,000 restaurants in Japan alone. Measured by volume of customers, the most popular restaurant in Japan is McDonald's. France has 538 McDonald's restaurants; Australia, 615; Germany (the home of the original "hamburger"), 743; United Kingdom, 693; and Canada almost 900. The world's largest McDonald's is located near Red Square in Moscow, where a Big Mac lunch costs the equivalent of a week's paycheck. When McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Minsk, over 4,000 Belorussians showed up, forcing the operators to call in the police for crowd control. McDonald's boasts 127 restaurants in Chinaone of which overlooks Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Today, McDonald's international sales are $15 billion out of a total of almost $32 billion. Of its total revenue, 59 percent of its corporate profits are generated by restaurants in countries other than the United States.

There are many reasons for the success of fast-food chains in other countries. Most chains have adapted to foreign cultures, including revising the ingredients in hamburgers. In addition to efficient service and cultural sensitivity, other factors contributing to this success abroad are cleanliness of fast food establishments, family atmospheres, clean bathrooms, and air-conditioning. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were few countries that did not sport a fast-food establishment selling hamburgers. Foreign hamburger establishments are expanding at a faster pace than are hamburger establishments in the United States. With this rapid expansion, hamburgers are now a global food.

See also Cattle; Delmonico Family; Fast Food; French Fries; Meat; Restaurants; Sandwich; Take-out Food.


Boas, Max, and Steve Chain. Big Mac: The Unauthorized Story of McDonald's. New York: Dutton, 1976.

Décsy, Gyula. Hamburger for America and the World: A Handbook of the Transworld Hamburger Culture. Transworld Identity Series, vol. 3. Bloomington, Ind.: Eurora European Research Association, 1984.

De Gouy, Louis P. The Burger Book: Tasty Ways to Serve Ground Meat. New York: Greenberg, 1951.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard Books, 1993. (Chapter 11 [pp. 155172] discusses Richard and Maurice McDonald, Ray Kroc, and the origins of the McDonald's empire.)

Hogan, David Gerard. Selling 'em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Kallet, Arthur, and F. J. Schlink. 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics. New York: Vanguard, 1933.

Kroc, Ray, with Robert Anderson. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1977.

Love, John F. McDonald's behind the Arches. Rev. ed. New York: Bantam, 1995.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life. Rev. ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1996.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All- American Meal. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Tennyson, Jeffrey. Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger. New York: Hyperion, 1993.

Vidal, John. McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial. New York: New Press, 1997.

Watson, James L., ed. Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Andrew F. Smith

First Located Hamburg(er) Recipe?

To make Hamburgh Sausages

Take a pound of Beef, mince it very small, with half a Pound of the best Suet; then mix three Quarters of a Pound of Suet cut in large Pieces; then season it with Pepper, Cloves, Nutmeg, a great Quantity of Garlic cut small, some white Wine Vinegar, some Bay Salt, a Glass of red Wine, and one of Rum; mix all these very well together, then take the largest Gut you can find, stuff it very tight; then hang it up a Chimney, and smoke it with Saw-dust for a Week or ten Days; hang them in the Air, till they are dry, and they will keep a Year. They are very good boiled in Peas Porridge, and roasted with toasted Bread under it, or in an Amlet.

source: Hannah Glasse. Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. 6th ed. London, 1758, p. 370.

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In the mid-twentieth century, the hamburger emerged as a symbol of American democracy and prosperity. As fast food became dominant on the American landscape, the hamburger provided to millions of people an inexpensive serving of meat. To consume a hamburger was, in a sense, to fulfill the promise of democracy, and to enact one's Americanness.

The hamburger or "burger," minimally defined as a cooked ground beef patty between two pieces of bread, was born in America sometime around 1890. Loosely based on the ground-beef steak popular in the German town of Hamburg, the hamburger gained national repute at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. In the 1920s the White Castle chain of restaurants helped popularize the hamburger, which was beginning to become a common food in many regions. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Great Depression and World War II severely impacted the ability of most Americans to purchase meat, but after the war, America's economy began to boom, and the hamburger rode the crest of a wave of new prosperity. Simple to prepare and available in every corner of America, the hamburger made meat cheaply available to a nation familiar with hunger and rationing. The hamburger celebrated the end of the war, the democratization of wealth, and America's robust economy.

By 1954, when Ray Kroc bought McDonald's, the hamburger was becoming popular nationwide at diners and roadside stands. With the rapid diffusion of McDonald's franchises in the 1960s, and later with a national advertising campaign for the Big Mac, the hamburger began to take on increased cultural importance. Because of its popularity, its standardization, and its heavy representation on television, the hamburger came to be identified as the most American food. It appeared alongside celebrities and the stars-and-stripes, and it was heralded in television drama, movies, and rock and roll.

The hamburger's surge in importance collaborated with widespread ownership of automobiles. Together, the burger and the car appealed to and reinforced American affinities for speed and convenience. Drive-in and drive-through restaurants proliferated, buoyed by their staple food, the hamburger. The burger could be prepared rapidly, eaten without utensils, and eaten on the run. In the new culture of fast food, the hamburger could be eaten alone, breaking many ethnic traditions of social dining.

As the quintessential American food, the hamburger was the main way Americans ingested beef, and, in the same bite, the mythologies of beef. In addition to prosperity, beef was linked to manliness and patriarchy, to domination over nature, to physical strength, to athletic prowess, and to being a "red-blooded" or an authentic American. The low cost and widespread availability of hamburgers ensured that all citizens could symbolically—and demo-cratically—impart these national ideals.

Beef's popularity peaked in 1976, when each American ate 127 pounds of it a year, with the hamburger patty as its most popular shape. In the late 1970s, new consciousness about dietary fat markedly reduced the hamburger's popularity. By the 1980s red-meat consumption, including hamburgers, was considerably reduced, and many medical studies were linking red meat consumption to cancer and heart disease. While the cattle industry responded with a multi-million dollar ad campaign: "Beef: Real Food for Real People," fast-food restaurants began to diversify their offerings. While the beef hamburger remained the bedrock of fast food, salads, chicken, fish, and burritos made inroads into the market.

Down from prior levels, Americans in 1995 still consumed twenty-nine billion hamburgers a year: an average of 120 per capita. Together, fast-food chains and cattle ranching made one of the largest industries in America, impacting ecosystems, water resources, and land ownership of large parts of America in its push for a large supply of inexpensive beef—the key to success for the fast-food hamburger. By converting much of the Western wilderness into ranch land, and by securing water rights and government subsidies, cattle ranchers could profitably sell beef at less than a dollar per pound. Powered by the popularity of hamburgers, an enormous cattle industry transformed millions of acres of wilderness. Barbed wire fences, cattle manure, grazing, and drought caused by the diversion of water sources radically altered land from Texas to Oregon. From the 1960s onward, parts of Latin-American rain forests were cleared to raise beef for American fast-food burgers.

By the close of the century, the traditional hamburger was in decline. Environmentalists alleged that the hamburger was a major threat to ecosystems, and health advocates warned Americans to reduce intake of red meat. The small but growing popularity of vegetarianism also challenged the hamburger, and even though most Americans did not disavow meat altogether, many reduced their intake. But while the beef burger was waning in popularity, other versions of the burger were ascendant: the "hamburger" was being reinterpreted. "Burgers" were being made with fish, chicken, turkey, soy beans, or grains. In the 1990s, the "veggie burger," a grain-based burger, rapidly increased in popularity.

—Dylan Clark

Further Reading:

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. Translated from French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York, Harper and Row, 1969.

McDonald, Ronald L. The Complete Hamburger: The History of America's Favorite Sandwich. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol, 1997.

Rifkin, Jeremy. Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture. New York, Dutton, 1992.

Robbins, John. Diet for a New America. Walpole, New Hampshire, Stillpoint, 1987.

Trager, James. The Food Chronology. New York, Henry Holt, 1995.

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Typically served with French fries (see entry under 1950s— Food and Drink in volume 3) and a soft drink, the hamburger ranks with the hot dog (see entry under 1900s—Food and Drink in volume 1) and with apple pie as one of America's truly national foods.

Named for the style of steak found in the German city of Hamburg, the hamburger consists of a ground-beef patty usually served on a soft round bun, often garnished with a pickle. "Billions and billions" have been served by the McDonald's (see entry under 1940s—Food and Drink in volume 3) restaurant chain alone, with uncounted others prepared by other restaurants, large and small. The hamburger was the favorite snack of Wimpy, a character in the old Popeye (see entry under 1920s—Print Culture in volume 2) comic strip, whose favorite expression was "I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." Inventive short-order cooks and backyard barbecuers have developed many variations, such as the cheeseburger.

—Edward Moran

For More Information

McDonald, Ronald L. The Complete Hamburger: The History of America'sFavorite Sandwich. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing, 1997.

Tennyson, Jeffrey. Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of theHamburger. New York: Hyperion, 1993.

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hamburger Or Hamburg steak, also known as beefburger. A flat cake made from ground (minced) beef, seasoned with salt, pepper, and herbs, and bound with egg and flour. Commercial beefburgers are usually 80–100% meat, but must by law (in the UK) contain 52% lean meat, of which 80% must be beef. Cereal, cereal fibre, or bean fibre may be added as filler or ‘meat extender’. Three people are credited with invention of the hamburger sandwich: Charles Nagreen at a county fair in Seymour, Wisconsin, so that people could stroll around the fair while eating (1885); Frank Menches at Akron (Ohio) county fair in 1892; and Louis Lassen in New Haven, Connecticut (1900).

A 100‐g portion (4 oz raw weight) is a rich source of protein, vitamin B12, niacin, copper, and iron; a good source of zinc; a source of vitamins B2 and B6; contains 900 mg of sodium and 17 g of fat, of which half is saturated and half mono‐unsaturated; supplies 260 kcal (1100 kJ).

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ham·burg·er / ˈhamˌbərgər/ • n. a round patty of ground beef, fried or grilled and typically served on a bun or roll and garnished with various condiments. ∎  ground beef.