The circuitous histories of hamburgers and ketchup
August 19, 2013 8:05 PM   Subscribe

The history of the hamburger could be a relatively short story, or one spanning centuries and continents, depending on how far you disassemble the modern hamburger. If you look for the origins of ground meat between two pieces of bread, that's something American, but where and when exactly is the question. But how did we get the ground meat patty? You can thank the Mongols and Kublai Khan, who brought their ground meat to Russia. Oh, and don't forget the fish sauce!

Nomadic Mongols didn't keep meat under their saddles to tenderize and partially cook it, but to ease the saddle sores on their horses. But the Mongols, or Tatars as the Russians called them, minced up the tough meat that had to make it easier to digest. It's unclear if that was then cooked or eaten raw, as is custom with modern steak tartare (though "tartare" could instead refer to an earlier form of tartare sauce, having nothing to do with the Ta(r)tar people).

From Russia (or elsewhere), the chopped meat is brought to Germany sometime in the 1600s, where Hamburg beef was commonly chopped, seasoned and molded into patties. German immigrants came to the United States, bringing their culinary traditions with them. In the mid-to-late 1800s, mechanical choppers lead the way to the appearance of Hamburg Beefsteak on menus, changing along the way to Texas, where Fletcher "Old Dave" Davis Athens, in Henderson County, Texas, invented the hamburger sandwich by the 1880s, and it was officially named the Hamburger at the 1904 World’s Fair, in St. Louis.

Or maybe it was "Hamburger" Charlie Nagreen of rural Wisconsin, who sold meatballs squished between two pieces of bread in 1885, for ease of the fair-goers to carry around with them. That same fateful year, Frank and Charles Menches ran out of sausages and used ground beef patties, spiced with coffee, brown sugar, and some other household ingredients, and called their concoction the "Hamburg Sandwich" after Hamburg, New York, where they sold their sandwich. But some claim it was really an unnamed man in a hurry who prompted Louis Lassen to make the first hamburger in 1900.

Wait, what was that about fish sauce? Ketchup, you say? What of that tomato-based condiment? Weren't tomatoes considered poisonous until the 1880s in Europe? Let's detour half a century before that, when one Dr. John Cook Bennett declared that the tomato would cure just about everything from dyspepsia to cholera, and Bennett came across another cure-all hawker, one Dr. Alexander (or Archibald) Miles. Bennett suggested that Miles' cure-all be renamed "Extract of Tomato," with similar outlandish claims of amazing properties. You can read more of this on Cecil Munsey's site, in the write-up titled Tomato Ketchup As A Patent Medicine (Google cache view of the PDF #1240, listed here).

This doesn't answer how the tomato sauce known as ketchup (or catsup) came to be. For this, look to Slate's article on ketchup's Chinese origins (though the original concoction came from Vietnam). See, ketchup originally meant “fish sauce” in a dialect of Fujian province, where the history of ketchup started, more than 500 years ago, as a stinky cooking sauce made from salting and fermenting fish guts (covered previously). The legendary original recipe is simple enough:
.... take the intestine, stomach, and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them well. Mix them with a moderate amount of salt and place them in a jar. Seal tightly and incubate in the sun. It will be ready in twenty days in summer, fifty days in spring or fall and a hundred days in winter....
As summarized by the Language of Food blog, "The British encountered these Chinese in Indonesia or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, borrowed the word ketchup, brought it home, and started right in on messing with the recipe." The fish gut sauce first changed into a concoction of salted and fermented anchovies, which is still made in some fashion, but by the 1700s, the British had put their own spin on the recipe (Google books preview), calling for strong, stale beer, noting "the stronger and staler the Beer is, the better the Katch-up will be." The slightly older English Katchup recipe (Google books, free ebook download) calls for your "best white-wine vinegar" and your "best Lagoon white-wine," still heavily relies on anchovies, but also notes you could add "the clear liquid that comes from mushrooms."

Mushrooms were the next step in the evolution of ketchup, and "is traditionally thin and almost black," though some versions were thicker in consistency. As explained elsewhere, mushroom ketchup "tastes halfway between Worcestershire Sauce and soy sauce with subtle undertones of mushroom." Mushroom ketchups were joined in the same time period by walnut ketchups and even a tomata catsup and other tomato sauces (there's oyster catsup, too, as seen in that Google books scan, and cherry and berry ketchups, like this recipe for blackberry ketchup). Apparently someone didn't get the word that tomatoes were poisonous, or an adventurous soul who didn't have pewter plates (or overlooked the tomato's resemblance to its relatives, belladonna and deadly nightshade realized "hey, this is delicious! Dangers of death be damned!"

The early commercially produced ketchups were chemical-laden dreck, full of preservatives and artificial colors (Google books preview). Heinz and other companies did start to produce preservative-free ketchup, displayed in clear bottles to ensure the customer of the quality of the product. You can read more of the well recognized brand of bright red, sweet tomato paste known in the US as ketchup in this 135 year timeline of Heinz ketchup (PDF), though there is no mention of when or why the tart topping became a sweet sauce.
posted by filthy light thief (34 comments total) 105 users marked this as a favorite
Holy shit. It's the most beautiful FPP I've ever seen.....
posted by lattiboy at 8:11 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.
posted by wabbittwax at 8:15 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

posted by Grimp0teuthis at 8:16 PM on August 19, 2013

Five minutes ago, before sitting down at the computer, I poured some ketchup over two hot dogs and said to myself, “I just read a history of peanut butter. Someone must have written a biography of ketchup.’’ So much for answered prayers.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:34 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I suppose it will be up to me to craft the definitive mayonnaise post.
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:35 PM on August 19, 2013

I suppose it will be up to me to craft the definitive mayonnaise post.

Here are two prior posts to get you started.

Don't bother researching bread, that's been covered well.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:41 PM on August 19, 2013

The Romans also ate and drank this stinky rotten fish guts sauce, garum.
posted by kandinski at 8:41 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't take this the wrong way.but don't get employed anytime soon
posted by wheelieman at 8:47 PM on August 19, 2013

:) This is what I do in my down time. If I was unemployed, I'd get less done (I blame my 2 year old wild man).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:03 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was going to favorite this for the above the fold stuff alone, then I clicked "more inside"...

You're the awesomest of the awesome, filthy light thief!
posted by Kevin Street at 9:07 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

You have a crapload of downtime even with a two year terror!
posted by wheelieman at 9:11 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is lovely, thank you for posting. If I ever win the lottery, I'll buy you a nice big bottle of ketchup. And a hamburger.
posted by Fibognocchi at 9:27 PM on August 19, 2013

posted by LobsterMitten at 9:28 PM on August 19, 2013

Spectacular post, tons of reading material. No hamburger joke yet?
posted by arcticseal at 9:38 PM on August 19, 2013

Disappointed that the post is not in hambuger essay format.
posted by Kabanos at 10:06 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

A hamburger post this well done is rare for the blue...

*scans for hometown*

nods, smiles
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:45 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

So, Texas gave us the Caesar salad, nachos, fajitas, AND the hamburger?

Great state, or greatest state?
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 11:02 PM on August 19, 2013

This post reminds me of the impracticality of a cheeseburger until roughly this century.
posted by xtine at 11:40 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hungry now.
posted by nickrussell at 12:53 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like hamburgers.
posted by Literaryhero at 2:15 AM on August 20, 2013

I went to high school in Seymour, WI. By the time I graduated and left town the hamburger origin thing was just this small tidbit of trivia that one our history teachers like to talk about. A couple of years later the town decided they needed something to draw in the tourists and the hamburger festival was born.

Now it's a whole "thing" and everyone acts like it's always been a point of pride for them but I remember when nobody gave a shit.
posted by Bonzai at 4:55 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Louis’ Lunch forever: buttered toast, burger from good fresh beef, tomato and onions if you want 'em, don't ask for mustard or ketchup. The first and the best. Go to New Haven and try it if you don't believe me.
posted by languagehat at 7:10 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Slabs of beef pounded under the saddle does not equal minced beef mushed into a patty and fried.

Besides, why would you bother to mince tenderized beef? I know some places do it with kobe beef, but that's to totally miss the point of kobe beef. No, you mince meat in order to get the last bit of use out of tough, gristly, nasty parts. Same as with sausage.

Sorry, long standing annoyance on my part. Other than that - excellent post.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:48 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

IndigoJones, the first link below the fold, that Giltclub blog post, addresses these misconceptions. I hadn't heard the tenderized beef theory before reading about the history of hamburgers, so I am happy to clear up any confusion people had about hamburger lore.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:17 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been busy lately, so metafilter has fallen off my radar. I'm off work today with some downtime and what do I find? This. Beautiful. Thing.

Oh metafilter I'll never doubt you again.
posted by device55 at 11:36 AM on August 20, 2013

I am going to sit down tonight and read this thread with a giant sloppy Bareburger bisonburger (tomatoes, bacon marmalade) in my hand.

i am excite
posted by elizardbits at 1:43 PM on August 20, 2013

Bacon marmalade? Do tell!
posted by filthy light thief at 2:21 PM on August 20, 2013

Filthylightthief, thank you. But I still find the theory of the Mongol's being unique in mincing meat as unsubstantiated and therefore suspicious. That as meaty a crew as the Hanseatic Germans had not figured out that you can make meat go further is you cut up the nasty bits and mix it all together - it beggars belief. Well, my belief, anyway.

If there is any substantial evidence that gives us a solid link that brings us from Mongols to Russians to Hamburgers, I would like to see it. Or at least, the first instance of someone making this connection.

(But - for your salty pleasure - Bacon Marmalade.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:31 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

IndigoJones, I now understand your point, and I agree. Maybe non-nomadic folk were able to be pickier, or spend more time tenderizing their tough meats? I am unsure.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:57 PM on August 20, 2013

Heinz and other companies did start to produce preservative-free ketchup, displayed in clear bottles to ensure the customer of the quality of the product.

Do you know what the secret recipe was that Heinz, and eventually their competitors, used to eliminate the relatively benign-in-small-quantities sodium benzoate from packaged ketchup? They added a metric butt-ton of sugar. It was actually a stunningly effective bit of cynical marketing genius that hijacked the "pure food" movement towards the benefit of a single company, resulting in a market dominance that continues to this day.

Traditional tomato ketchup was thinner and more vinegary. The famously narrow-necked shape of the Heinz bottle (intended to reduce the amount of surface area exposed to potential contamination) predated the thickening of the product.
posted by snottydick at 7:44 AM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

snottydick, thanks for those facts! I was wondering about the change to extra-sweet ketchup.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:56 PM on August 21, 2013

filthy light thief, I learned that bit of info and more about ketchup than anybody has a right to know from this book.
posted by snottydick at 8:02 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

This thread has influenced (and been cited by) this article in Fast Company.
posted by epo at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, thanks for catching that, epo! I wonder if John Brownlee is a lurker or a member here.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:53 PM on September 5, 2013

« Older Opportunity looks a lot like hard work.   |   Portraits of a dysfunctional family Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments