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Monday, February 4, 2008

We know where the first hamburger was made

The following is a column by Randall Beach

There they go again, trying to shoot down Louis’ Lunch and its proud claim of making the world’s first hamburger.
The latest naysayer is Josh Ozersky, food editor for New York Magazine. He has written a soon-to-be-published book “The Hamburger: A History.” The people at Yale University Press provided me with an advance copy, and its pages 17-18 are dynamite.
Clearly, the man has done a lot of research. Beginning on page 15 of his 140-page book, Ozersky tries to sort out who made the first hamburger.
“There are a number of rival claims,” he wrote, “but they’re all equally worthless, historically speaking. None can produce any real evidence.”
Among the earliest claimants to the burger throne was a teenager from Seymour, Wis. named Charlie Nagreen, who swore he put a meatball between two slices of bread and sold it from his ox-drawn cart at the Outagamie County Fair in 1885.
Ozersky then discussed the Menches brothers, Frank and Charles, who claimed to have sold a ground beef sandwich at the Erie County Fair in, coincidentally, Hamburg, N.Y., also in 1885. Ozersky said they served “some kind of debased meat loaf.”
Another aspirant was Fletcher Davis of Athens, Tex., who said his hamburger sandwiches were a hit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Ozersky said this, too, lacks proof.
Then he turned to Louis’ Lunch, which he acknowledged to be “a venerable institution” that has operated continuously in New Haven since 1895.
“A nosegay of affidavits attest the place has been making hamburgers since the turn of the century,” he wrote. But he said these affidavits are “not irrefutable.”
After praising Louis’ for its “elevating” eating experience, Ozersky dropped the bombshell: “There is just one problem. The next hamburger Louis’ Lunch serves will be its first.”
He explained: “Louis’ serves a ground beef sandwich on sliced bread, in this case toast. And that is not a hamburger.”
He called serving the meat on toast “a stopgap measure.” He added, “No, there is no doubt: on any kind of semantic or platonic level, no bun = no burger.”
Ozersky concluded, “To admit ground beef on toast as a hamburger is to make the idea of a ‘hamburger’ so loose, so abstract, so semiotically promiscuous as to have no meaning.”
Well, that’s quite a mouthful. You can imagine how much I was looking forward to heading down to Crown Street and showing those passages to Jeff Lassen, great-grandson of Louis Lassen, the original owner.
After I ordered “a hamburger,” and was soon presented with what Lassen firmly believes to be indeed a hamburger, and after I greatly enjoyed whatever it was, I pulled out the scandalous pages and warily approached him.
Standing over the grill, Lassen read it with furrowed brow.
Then, lowering the pages, he demanded, “Which came first, the horse or the cart? Toast came before buns!
“We did it on toast because that’s all there was back then, back in the day,” Lassen said.
“We still stand by that we made the first hamburger in the United States,” he told me. “It’s a tradition we’re quite proud of and that we take rather seriously.”
“Rather” seriously?
“To try to shoot us down for whatever reason,” Lassen continued, “to say it’ll be ‘our first hamburger,’ is a little crazy. We have a lot of proof on our side: documentation, affidavits. We’re in the Library of Congress.”
It’s true. As Casey Stengel said, “You could look it up.”
As I departed, Lassen said, “Ask him if he’s really eaten here.”
And so I did. When I reached him at his New York office, Ozersky said he has dined at Louis’ 8 to 12 times.
“It’s great!” he raved. “It’s one of the best meat sandwiches in the world. If I could call it a hamburger, I’d say it’s one of the best hamburgers in the world.”
But he said he can’t do that.
“If you say it can be on toast,” he told me, “you’re essentially redefining the hamburger out of existence. The hamburger as the world knows it means a sandwich of ground beef on a bun.”
Ozersky said the bun “goes back hundreds of years,” so Louis Lassen could have used a bun on that fabled day in 1900.
Who, then, in Ozersky’s view, did make the world’s first hamburger?
Quoting his book: “The first great modern hamburger, on a bun and ready for business, was conceived ... in Wichita, Kansas” by a fry cook named Walter Anderson.
The date was Nov. 16, 1916. Anderson’s real estate broker, Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, became his partner and Ingram created the White Castle hamburger chain.
Did you ever eat a White Castle hamburger? Wouldn’t you rather eat at Louis’?
Case closed.
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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