In the latter decades of the 19th century and into the 20th, European immigrants to the New World most often traveled to American ports on ships of the Hamburg-American Lines, the premier German transportation giant of the day. On board they were probably introduced to meat meals consisting of beef which had been “processed” by smoking and salting to achieve a longer shelf life. On board it would be machine-chopped before preparation and serving and presented as “Hamburg Steak”. Since most passengers had debarked from Hamburg – many of them German themselves -- this was an entirely friendly bit of advertising. New York City restaurants were quick to catch on and the label found a home.
While it is a fact that pieces of meat of one kind or another clamped between two pieces of bread have been around for a long time, even as far back as Roman times, the “Hamburger” as conjured up in the mind of any “millennial” hearing the term today within the shadow of an overhead Yellow Arch is quite another matter. It was Edgar Waldo Ingram who saw a future in a sandwich built around a wedge of prepared chopped meat and onions deployed between two halves of a roll baked for the purpose and served with appropriate additions when he founded his White Castle restaurant chain in 1921. The first square meat and accompanying pickle combo were called “sliders” and sold for a nickel each.
Ingram knew that the American public held a healthy distrust of chopped meat at the time and so designed his restaurants around gleaming white tiles and shiny metal to emphasis the concept of cleanliness and purity. (As a young boy on an errand to buy a pound or two of chopped meat from the butcher shop I was always cautioned to watch as Mr. Schuster pushed pieces of nice fresh red meat through the grinding machine. Pre-packaged meat would never have made the grade even in the 1930s.)
White Castle outlets opened up in the mid-west and in the middle-Atlantic states proving “Billy” Ingram’s business acumen and introducing both the nickname hamburger and the concept of processed foods. Unlike the McDonald brothers who came along in the 1940s and who adopted the idea of selling franchises to individual operators (and endured a slow start) the White Castle operation remained family-owned-and-operated as it is today.
My first hamburger sandwich took shape before my wondering eyes at a roadside restaurant in New Jersey when I was about 5 years old and I remember it to this day – especially the huge slice of onion floating on the bed of ketchup! At the same time I cannot recall ever seeing hamburgers made or eaten in a family setting in a home until after WWII and the arrival of the backyard charcoal grill. I have queried some of my contemporaries who agree. Our mothers used a lot of chopped meat or hamburger
at home in many dishes, from meatloaf to various casserole inventions, even as individual hamburger patties and of course, meatballs; but not between buns as a true “hamburger.”
I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago as my wife and I sat down at a newly-opened brewery pub at our favorite ocean-front getaway spot in coastal Oregon. I had come to test the veracity of the rave reviews of world class hamburgers I had overheard around town. After all, how much can one expect from a lowly hamburger? After not one, but two visits to sample and resample the exact same menu item – the Pelican Backyard Barbecue Burger – I had no choice but to hunt down the head chef for a long talk.
I found that beginning with free-range grass-fed beef raised to their specifications, and lofty croissant buns large enough to accommodate the multi-level interior: meat patty, tomato, arugula, a stack of crispy onion swirls, they added a flavor-rich jam exuding wisps of smoked bacon and one of the pub’s finest malty products, a dark stout called Tsunami.
Among all the attractions which draw us to this particular corner of the Pacific Northwest each year, I can now add one of the most bodacious burgers I have ever bitten into!
Sumptuous, succulent and layered with contrasting flavors, this one is a burger-champion.