Monday, November 7, 2011

Louis' Lunch did not invent the hamburger

Louis' Lunch, the venerable New Haven lunch counter, is renowned for its tasty burgers (more than 90 percent lean, freshly ground every day, and broiled in antique cast-iron grills.) Unfortunately Louis' partisans have not been content to boast of its excellent food but have gone on to make an erroneous historical claim: that founder Louis Lassen invented the hamburger in 1900. This assertion has gained such a strong foothold in American pseudo-history that the New York Times has repeated it at least 13 times.

Barry Popik disproved this myth some years ago when he discovered the following passage in an 1873 issue of the Times: "We can have a Hamburger steak, which is simply a beefsteak redeemed from its original toughness by being mashed into mince-meat and then formed into a conglomerated mass."

Even Louis' own contention, which is more limited--that in 1900 Lassen became the first to put bread around a beef patty, thereby inventing the "hamburger sandwich"--falls before Popik's evidence. On October 22, 1896, the Kansas City Star noted: "Rare beefsteak chopped fine and seasoned with salt and pepper is an excellent filling for sandwiches." The Reno Evening Gazette, August 25, 1893, wrote of "Tom Fraker's celebrated Hamburger steak sandwiches." And earliest of all, on July 19, 1881, one of New Haven's own local papers--the Evening Register--mentioned a "chopped beef sandwich." Louis' Lunch's burgers may be the best. But clearly they were not the first.
--Fred R. Shapiro, Yale Alumni Magazine, on possibly best but definitely not first