A Patty by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet


USA Weekend food columnist Pam Anderson says, “Take a hamburger, drop the ham and what do you have?” When she judged a Build a Better Burger contest several years ago, but the top prize went to the best beef burger, there was a $10,000 prize for the “best alternative burger.”

The event chairman, cookbook author James McNair, defines an alternative burger as “one made from any food product that can be ground, formed into a patty, cooked on a grill and served on or between a bakery product.”

Anderson says, “If you give enthusiastic cooks that much freedom, you’re bound to get some creative concoctions.”

(Note McNair’s book: Build a Better Burger: Celebrating Sutter Home’s Annual Search for America’s Best Burgers (Paperback), Ten Speed Press, 2006 by Sutter Home Family Vineyards.)

Ancient Egyptians ate ground meat, and down through the ages we find that ground meat has been shaped into patties and eaten all over the world under many different names. Beginning in the 15th century, minced beef was a valued delicacy throughout Europe.

By the 1600s, ships from the German port of Hamburg, Germany, began calling on Russian ports. During this period the Russian steak tartare was brought back to Germany and called “tartare steak.”

In the late 18th century, the largest ports in Europe were in Germany. Sailors, who had visited the ports of Hamburg, Germany, and New York, brought this food and term “Hamburg Steak” into popular usage. To attract German sailors, eating stands along the New York city harbor offered “steak cooked in the Hamburg style.”

In 1802, the Oxford English Dictionary defined Hamburg steak as salt beef. It had little resemblance to the hamburger we know today. It was a hard slab of salted minced beef, often slightly smoked, mixed with onions and breadcrumbs. The emphasis was more on durability than taste.

Immigrants to the United States from German-speaking countries brought with them some of their favorite foods. One of them was Hamburg steak. The Germans simply flavored shredded low-grade beef with regional spices, and, both cooked and raw, it became a standard meal among the poorer classes. In the seaport town of Hamburg, it acquired the name Hamburg steak.

According to Theodora Fitzgibbon in her book The Food of the Western World – An Encyclopedia of food from North American and Europe:

“The hamburger originated on the German Hamburg-Amerika line boats, which brought emigrants to America in the 1850s. There was at that time a famous Hamburg beef which was salted and sometimes slightly smoked, and therefore ideal for keeping on a long sea voyage. As it was hard, it was minced and sometimes stretched with soaked breadcrumbs and chopped onion. It was popular with the Jewish emigrants, who continued to make Hamburg steaks, as the patties were then called, with fresh meat when they settled in the U.S.”

Using the word “hamburg” to mean the patty eaten in a bun has always bugged me. I say Hamburg is the name of a city in Germany and hamburger is the name for ground beef. Clearly, according to this research, both words have their place in the evolution of today’s hamburger. Said either way, the hamburger has become an American phenomenon practically unequaled in the world of food.

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