The hamburger ranks as one of the most popular dishes in the world. At least, if you figure by numbers. According to Jeffrey Tennyson, author of Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger, Americans consume more than 38 billion burgers a year-three burgers a week for each American man, woman, and child. Add foreign consumption and you’ve got a food phenomenon unique in human history.
The hamburger’s history begins, logically enough, in Hamburg, Germany, which in the eighteenth century was the largest port in Europe. According to Tennyson, German seafarers acquired a taste for chopped beef in Russia, where steak tartare had been a staple for centuries. Tartare takes its name from the Tartary (or Tatary) plains in Central Asia, home to the nomadic warriors known as the Mongols. Mongol horsemen, so the legend goes, enjoyed their beef raw, tenderizing it by placing it under their saddles.
(The riding action reduced it to a tender pulp.)
History neglects to tell us whether it was a Mongol, Russian, or German who first had the idea to cook the chopped beef. We do know that by the time the hamburger reached North America, with German immigrants, it was cooked-and beloved and respected. The first North American restaurant to propose hamburger on its menu was the legendary Delmonico’s in New York, which in 1834 offered "hamburger steaks" for the princely sum of 10 cents-twice the price of roast beef or veal cutlet.
As the hamburger became more familiar, the price dropped. By the turn of the century, hamburgers had become the food of the masses, sold at horse-drawn lunch wagons, soda fountains, and newly invented luncheonettes. Somewhere along the line, the tomatoes and pickles were added-and the patty was placed on a bun, making the ham-burger the ultimate convenience food you could eat on the run.
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