The hamburger is perhaps the greatest equalizer the food world has ever known. It is enjoyed across cultures, generations and economic statuses and can be customized to fit any flavor inclination or dietary following.
But the burger is much more than a patty between two buns. The burger tells a story.
Through its transformation over the centuries, from humble beginnings to a worldwide phenomenon to a topic of controversy, its history has closely followed our own.
So how did one of the world’s most beloved foods come to be, and what might it become in the future?
The pocket patty
A meal on the go was as popular in the 12th and 13th centuries as it is today. The infamous conqueror Genghis Khan and his armies were fond of keeping raw ground meat in their satchels to eat between battles. Khan’s son introduced this fast food to Russia, where it became popularly known as steak tartar. From there, it spread to Germany, and in the 1800s crossed the pond and landed in America. It was particularly popular in New York, where it became known as Hamburg steak. But throughout the burger’s transcontinental journey, the dish still lacked a bun or, for the most part, any kind of cooking. But hey, if this pile of (mostly) raw meat could make it in New York, it could make it anywhere.
Who invented the American hamburger?
Like many great inventions, the origin of the American burger – that is, a cooked beef patty served as a sandwich – isn’t totally clear. At the turn of the 20th century, several people claimed to have invented the hamburger, the most likely being Louis Lassen, founder of Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. But it wasn’t until the first White Castle opened in 1921 that the hamburger became a household name and fast food as we know it was born.
Hitting the road . . . again
Fast-food burger joints started popping up all across the country during the 1950s and 1960s, most notably McDonalds, which opened its 1,000th restaurant in 1968. Customers were drawn in by the quick service, low costs, and knowledge that from coast to coast the burgers would taste exactly the same.
Introducing the veggie burger
The best way to stick it to the man? Turning down something as American as the burger, of course. Countercultural movements that centered around environmental activism and animal rights during the 1970s led to a rise in vegetarianism during the decade. Plant-based substitutes weren’t a new concept, but it often came in the form of bland, canned mystery faux-meat. It wasn’t until veggie burgers hit the freezer section in the early 1980s that the alternatives really took off.
As foodie culture rose in popularity in the early 2010s, chefs had to come up with new ways to get people excited about their food. Enter the monster burger. From ramen buns to $300 burgers and other novelties, chefs continued pushing the limits of what a burger can be.
The high-tech burger
Veggie burgers that bleed? Lab-grown meat? It sounds like science fiction, but both of these are now a reality. Brought about largely by disruptive innovators and a consumer base that is more environmentally conscious than ever, these burgers could change the way we define meat. A few years ago, those looking for fast-food meat-free alternatives would have had to settle for a sad salad and a side of fries. Today, several national chains either carry plant-based alternatives or have plans to. The once tiny industry has gone totally mainstream and could capture 10 percent of the total meat market in the next decade.
The year is 2100. Thanks to 3D food printers, any burger you’re craving will arrive in your kitchen within minutes. With all food on demand and 100 percent customizable, you can order from any restaurant anywhere in the world 24/7. Plant-based meat is now commonplace and is indistinguishable from “real” meat, which now is mostly grown in a lab. Thanks to consumer demand, burgers are now healthier and more environmentally friendly than ever. While the ingredients of the future burger may change, there’s still nothing that beats that first bite.