Once a working-class immigrant meal, the hamburger has risen in prestige to become the quintessential American dish. Or, as Drake might say, it started at the bottom and now it’s literally everywhere. Alison Herman of the food website First We Feast decided to take a closer look at the long history of the hamburger, noting, “The road between Ellis Island and the Shake Shack IPO is a long one, touching on the assimilation of immigrant groups, the mechanization of fast food, and the country’s renewed focus on quality over convenience.”
Accompanied by visuals from Albert Hsu and details from Hamburger America author George Motz, Herman breaks down the history of the American hamburger into distinct stages. Long before the burger got its iconic special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and sesame seed bun, it was merely a pan-fried, chopped-beef patty served as part of a German “Hamburg steak plate.” During the 20th Century, both the State Fair and fast food restaurants served as catalysts for hamburger evolution. Although McDonald’s obviously played a huge role in making burgers ubiquitous, Motz credits White Castle with first associating fast food burgers with “safety and consistency.”
Of course, those are the two words least associated with fast food burgers nowadays. But according to Motz, that dip in fast food quality left an opening for the rise of fancier burger joints like Shake Shack and Smashburger, which emphasize taste rather than convenience. And the growing trend of upscale restaurants offering gourmet burgers means the humble German import is more popular than ever.
While that’s the basic gist, the First We Feast article has a lot more detail about the hamburger’s tumultuous journey.