Off the beaten path

The Birth Of The Burger

Who invented the Hamburger? A simple question that is actually a bit of a pickle to answer. And depending on who you ask, and how said person defines a true hamburger, that reply will vary dramatically. Some food historians will point you as far back as Genghis Khan’s fast-moving army, who would flatten mutton scrapings into patties; tenderizing the meat by placing it under their saddles as they were riding, then grabbing and eating them raw in order to keep up with the cavalry (origins of the drive-thru, perhaps?) And naturally, no shortage of you word mavericks might make the connection with Hamburg, Germany, which once served as one of Europe’s largest ports, making it a prime location to export hashed beef and steak tartare, or Hamburg steak (if nowhere else than in the bellies and cravings of its New York-bound sailors). 

Louis was cooking out of a lunch wagon when a local businessman, perhaps late for a meeting, pleaded for a plate “to go”

With no disrespect for those who hanker for saddle-flattened mutton scrapings, we set off in search of how the burgers we know and love evolved into their current, reasonably cooked form. And if you ask anyone near New Haven, Connecticut, most won’t hesitate to offer the name Louis (“Louie”) Lassen. At the kick-off of the 20th century, Louis was cooking out of a lunch wagon (the 1900 version of a food truck), and a local businessman, perhaps late for a meeting, pleaded for a plate “to go”. Louis, a frugal businessman in his own right, and never one to waste meat when dough was on the table, quickly placed his blend of steak trimmings between two pieces of toast. Just like that, the great American sandwich was born.

Due to every food regulation created since, the wagon is no longer there, but little else has changed at Louis’ Lunch restaurant. From the toast to the trimmings, the fourth generation of Lassen family members continue to sling simple sandwiches straight off the original vertically-broiling cast-iron grills from 1898. A small board above lists the order options: Hamburger or Cheeseburger. Would you like any condiments on that? Then bring your own, and don’t apply them on the premises. Louis’ has a strict ‘No Ketchup’ policy. Your burger will be topped with tomato and onions. It will be served on white toast. Your choice of whether or not you want cheese is a luxury.  Sides? Potato Salad or Potato Chips. And for dessert? Easy as pie…because that’s the only option.

Every year, the establishment closes their doors for the month of August for the annual “Inventory of Spoons”

Patrons and owners alike continue to claim that Louis was the first to dish out the American staple, but calling dibs on such a vaulted legacy has been a longstanding beef among many other purveyors of hand-pattied meats. One fact that is widely acknowledged is that the hamburger in its modern form, bun and all, first received national recognition at the 1904 St. Louis (“Lewis”)  Worlds Fair. The New York Tribune clearly didn’t want a stake in the fight,  so vaguely accredited it to “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike.” Thankfully, in 2016 the Library of Congress stepped in, and though their determination likely made Emperor Khan flip over in his tomb, it dubbed “Louis’ Lunch” as the official home of the first hamburger.

Fun Facts: 

– Every year, the establishment closes their doors for the month of August for the annual “Inventory of Spoons”

– Take note of Louis’ “Lingo” when ordering. For instance, you may hear a regular ask for a “Cheese works, a salad and a birch”. Loosely translated, this individual has requested “A Hamburger with cheese, tomato & onion, cooked medium rare on toast, an order of potato salad, and a birch beer”.  

Louis’ was almost bulldozed in the early 1970s, but global burger fans rallied to save the tiny joint and have the whole building moved it to its current location. One of its inner walls was rebuilt with bricks sent by fans from around the world. Most are labeled, and show support from diners living as far away as Bora Bora.

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