A food-fight of epic proportions is being waged over who invented what's become perhaps the best-known symbol of America: the hamburger. Supporters are beefing up their arguments.
It's late afternoon at Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. In the brick, pub-style restaurant, fourth-generation proprietor Jeff Lassen is cooking beef patties on a cast-iron broiler that's been in use for more than a century. "We started our business in 1895, and we stand by our claim that we did the first burger in 1900. We've been here 112 years and it's up to everybody else to prove their claims and last as long as we have."
Legend says founder Louis Lassen made history when he stuck a slab of chopped beef between two slices of toast, for a customer on the run. That account has been repeated on television shows and newspapers. And The Library of Congress calls Louis' Lunch the birthplace of the burger.
But more than 2,500 kilometers to the west, a Texas legislator has filed a resolution challenging that claim. It says that the first hamburger was made by Fletch Davis, of Athens, Texas, at his lunch stand in the 1880s. Athens resident and burger booster Peggy Gould explains that the hamburger's popularity spread when Davis visited the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. "[He] set up a stand on the Midway, and started cooking his sandwich. The rest is history!" she adds with a laugh. Gould is the town's reigning Burger Queen and helps organize the annual cook-off that celebrates Davis' invention. The event pulls in some $10,000 for local businesses.
But nearly 2,000 kilometers to the north, in Wisconsin, Bill Collar, performing the role of local mascot, Hamburger Charlie, intones,
"There's no need to search, there's no need to roam, just come to Seymour, it's the hamburger's home." Collar says the town of Seymour, Wisconsin (population 3,500) has proof that early food proprietor Charlie Nagreen created the great American burger at a county fair in 1885. "He was actually selling meatballs, and people weren't buying those so he packed a meatball in between two pieces of bread, and squashed it together and called it a hamburger."
A local lawmaker is even crafting a resolution to refute Texas' claim on the burger, and name Seymour as its rightful home. Collar says that in an Internet vote during the National Burger Festival in Akron, Ohio, last year, Seymour beat out the claims of rivals Athens and New Haven.
Food expert John Mariani calls all the claims "a lot of baloney." The author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink says the terms hamburger and hamburger steak predate all known claims by decades. He says the hamburger's precise point of origin is lost in the mists of culinary time. Still, Moriani appreciates why the various claims stir up such super-sized competition. "It's an icon of American food culture," he says, "so to claim that you were the first one to have invented it is quite a claim indeed and has a lot of marketing possibilities around it."
Seymour librarian and community organizer Elizabeth Timmins agrees. "The more the merrier," is how she puts it. "I mean if we can all have fun with it and compete with each other, and all help our communities by having this claim, I think it's great." Seymour's annual Burger Fest draws in 20,000 visitors, and generates up to $15,000 for local scholarships and community improvement efforts.