Hamburg births the burger… or does it?
Vintage hamburger concessions at the Erie County Fair
Photos and scans courtesy of Marty Biniasz
County fairs have always been shrouded in the intrigue that comes with intermittent, itinerant attractions. Hamburg’s Erie County Fair, with its sprawling racetrack, raucous midway, and intoxicatingly fragrant food alley is no exception. Dogged dedication to culinary ingenuity has characterized the fair since its inception. In 1885, one of those innovations was the hamburger.
Marty Biniasz, brand marketing and general information cache for the Erie County Agricultural Society, called the story of the first hamburger at the fair “the tradition and legend we love to embrace.
“There’s no ‘smoking gun,’” he adds. “But what we do know is, for over 100 years, a lot of food innovations in Western New York have come from the fair. Fairs have always introduced new tastes, because they’re a mixing pot of people, of the foods they bring with them.”
In 1885, brothers Frank and Charles Menches from near Akron, Ohio, were serving pork sausage at the Erie County Fair, cooked over a wood fire. Pork was something of a delicacy at the time, so these sandwiches were a hot item. When their stand ran out of pork, the brothers went to a local butcher to find some more. Since it was late in the day, the butcher was not able to slaughter an entire pig, so the Menches purchased ground beef instead, which was considered an inferior meat at the time. They made the beef into patties and cooked them over a wood fire.
The sandwich was a hit. When asked what he planned to call it, Charles Menches looked up at a “Hamburg Fairgrounds” sign and said, “Well, the hamburger, of course!”
After that, as historical author Chris Carosa put it, “Word got around among the carnies. Everyone wanted to know what it was. When you have a hit, you want it ready for the next fair, so you can profit off that innovation.”
Carosa would know; he wrote a book about working at his family’s pizza stand at the fair, A Pizza the Action: Everything I Ever Learned About Business I Learned by Working in a Pizza Stand at the Erie County Fair. Carosa is currently researching the hamburger’s origin story for his next book and thinks that the carnival circuit’s inherent peculiarities gave rise to the conflicting accounts about where the famous sandwich really started; several competing origin stories support that theory. Charles Nagreen claims to have invented the burger at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1885. Fletcher Davis from Athens, Texas, said he invented the burger at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904.
Photo from a 1980 article about the invention of the burger (shown: Earl W. Henry, president; and Paul C. Laing, secretary, ECF)
The one non-carny in the crowd of claimants is Louis Lassen, founder of Louis’s Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, who claimed he created the sandwich in 1900 for a customer who was on the run and wanted a quick fix. He stuck some trimmings between some toast, and his take on the burger was born.
“The earliest claim is in 1885, the Menches brothers,” Carosa stresses. The fair at which the Menches claim the burger was invented would have been about six weeks earlier than the Wisconsin State Fair that same year. Like the burger’s story itself, how Carosa got into it is all happenstance. His interest in the story arose from a research paper he wrote in college about his hometown of Hamburg. He found Buffalo Express newspaper from the 1880s announcing the sandwich’s creation and cited it in his paper. Decades later, when researching his book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York, he went searching for that same article, to back up included hamburger claims. He discovered that it had been expunged from the records, thrown out during a cleaning of the stacks.
“That’s the verification I need,” Carosa says. “That’s what I’m searching for. Everything else, up to this point, has just been competing origin stories and there’s never really been cold, hard proof.” Drew Cerza, founder of the National Burger Festival in Akron, is familiar with those competing stories and, in the second year of his burger festival, decided to hold The Hamburger Hearings, to settle the dispute once and for all.
“Everyone’s nice about it. They all disagree respectfully,” Cerza says of the participants. Actors and representatives from the disputing areas’ chambers of commerce got onstage to state their cases in a satirical debate, five minutes per side. A hung jury resulted, after which a two-week national vote on hamburgerfestival.com ensued. The vote-happy “burger buddies” in Seymour, Wisconsin prevailed over the Menches in the court of popular opinion, by nine percentage points.
What does Cerza think? “Back in the late 1800s, we didn’t have CNN or USA Today bringing the news from all across the country,” he notes. “All you had was word of mouth. At the time, these guys probably didn’t think to lay claim to the sandwich. They just made it, people were happy with it and bam, that was that.”
Cerza and Carosa can both verify one thing: John Menches, now the CEO of Menches Family Restaurants in Akron, found a handwritten recipe for the original burger when cleaning out an old trunk at his grandmother’s estate. That faded paper is the only tangible proof that a recipe was created all those years ago, one that lives on at the Menches restaurants today.
“Back then, the wood fire was difficult to regulate, and the burgers were coming out all burned on the outside, but raw on the inside,” Carosa explains. “So they added coffee to the blend, which steamed the inside a little bit and kept [the burgers] tender. To offset that coffee taste, they added brown sugar and some other ‘secret’ ingredients.”
While the Menches story prevails in local lore at least, the jury can agree on one thing: the hamburger’s lasting impact on not only the American economy and food scene, but the world’s.
“I call it the greatest invention in the history of the world,” Carosa states. “It’s touched the lives of so many people and been responsible for so much of the world’s economy, even through fast food alone.”
As for Hamburg, New York, an annual BurgerFest event was launched by the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce in 1985 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Menches brothers’ invention and the town that birthed it. “We strongly believe the burger was born in Hamburg by the Menches brothers. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it,” says 2016–17 BurgerFest chairman Philip Durkin. This year’s festival will take place on July 16, and, as always, will celebrate both the town and its culinary point of pride.
“Without a doubt, BurgerFest celebrates our wonderful community and also the invention of the hamburger,” Durkin says proudly. “It’s a time to get together and celebrate our town, celebrate this great food, celebrate who we are.”
Lizz Schumer is a creative writing teacher at National Geographic Student Expeditions and frequent contributor to Spree.