The 'Hamburger' Was Not Invented in Athens, Texas

Dear AHT, Letters From Our Readers

Clicking in to the AHT inbox today, we've got another great message and fact-filled set-'em-straight from Barry Popik! Grab a coffee and get ready to scroll. AK

Dear AHT, Letters From Our Readers

This story has gotten completely absurd, involving bad journalism (Texas Monthly is not alone in this) and pathetic legislation. "The documentary evidence supporting this claim is strong," writes Gary Cartwright. "According to legend, Uncle Fletch took his sandwich to the 1904 World's Fair, in St. Louis. There it was dubbed 'hamburger,' a term apparently coined in derision by St. Louis citizens of Teutonic extraction." No, it wasn't first called a "hamburger" in 1904. Even a simple check of Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary shows the date of "1884."

This now-familiar Athens hamburger origination myth began over thirty years ago. Dallas Morning News writer Frank X. Tolbert investigated the history of the hamburger and gave credit to Fletcher Davis, of tiny Athens in east Texas. Davis was born in Missouri, but migrated to Athens some time in the late 1880s or 1890s. He worked as a potter, but he made "meat sandwiches" at picnics. He eventually sold hamburgers from a lunch counter on Athens' courthouse square. He went to the 1904 St. Louis fair and created a big hit with "Uncle Dave's hamburger stand."

The 1904 New York Tribune reported on the "new sandwich" that was being sold on the pike, but there's also a second myth! This is in the "Original Home of the Hamburger" bill, passed by your Texas legislators: "[C]ustomers could also enjoy fried potato es, served with a thick tomato sauce; when the journalist from the was told that Mr. Davis had learned to fix potatoes in that manner from a friend in Paris, Texas, he misunderstood and described the item to his readers as french-fried potatoes." Uncle Fletch and Paris, Texas, gave the world "french fries"! ("French fried potatoes" were known in the 19th-century.) 0D

No one knows who made the first "hamburger," but there are many things that we do know. "Hamburg(h) beef" (named after the city of Hamburg, Germany, where many German immigrants boarded ship for America) was well known in the first half of the 19th century. In the 1870s, "hamburger steak" was a popular dish throughout America.

The New York Sun in 1883 wrote about a small store on Second Avenue: "Those flat, brown meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg steaks; the people call them 'Hamburgers.' They are made from raw meat chopped up with onions and spices, and are very good."

The Caterer and Household Magazine of October 1883 described a recipe for "Broiled Hamburg Steaks," adding: "This mixture of meat is also often spread upon slices of bread, with butter in which a spoonful of dry mustard has been mixed, and used as a sandwich."

From the August 25, 1893 Reno (NV) Evening Gazette: "Tom Fraker's celebrated Hamburger steak sandwiches."

From the April 15, 1894 Chic ago (IL) Daily Tribune: "Hamburger steak sandwiches."

From the September 23, 1894 Los Angeles (CA) Times: "hamburger steak sandwiches."

In 1898, stories in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the St. Louis Republic both mentioned "hamburgers"--six years before that word was allegedly invented at the 1904 St. Louis fair.

From the December 16, 1898 Bismarck (ND) Daily Tribune: "Hamburg sandwich."

A 1900 city directory of Dallas, Texas, mentions a "hamburger stand."

From the June 28,1902, Davenport (IA) Republican: "One Hamburger sandwich man disposed of 400 buns to hungry pedestrians Thursday."

The 1904 New York Tribune story (described by Tolbert, without giving an exact date) has never been located. The New York Tribune has been digitzed on the ProQuest and the Library of Congress's Chronicling America databases, but the Fletcher Davis "hamburger" article still cannot be found.

Cartwright's story reveals that Fletcher Davis's 1904 vendor's ticket identified him as "a pottery turner." It's also revealed that Uncle Fletch didn't arrive in Athens until 1894 and didn't cook hamburgers until 1896.

Game over!

I live in Austin and my work has been available on the web for years. A simple search for "Fletcher Davis" ha s me in the top five search results. My work has been featured on the well-regarded hamburger blog "A Hamburger Today" and I'm a friend of Andrew F. Smith, author of "Hamburger: A Global History" (2008). I served as an editor on Smith's Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. It wasn't all that difficult to find me or my work. ... Texas legislators didn't have to find me--I wrote to them! I wrote to the sponsor of the "hamburger bill" and said that the alleged 1904 New York Tribune article didn't exist, that the "hamburger" was well known in the 1880s and 1890s, and that "french fries" weren't named after Paris, Texas. I'm a scholar, I live here--this is all bogus! She never wrote back. I wrote in again, begging for even a simple response. The Texas representative would never respond to me.

I wrote to the Texas House committee chairman, asking him when the bill would be in his committee and how I could be placed on the speaker's list. He never responded, either.

I wrote the the Texas Senate committee chairman, also asking him when the bill would be in his committee and how I could be placed on the speaker's list. He never responded, but he did more than that--he waived public notice so the bill could be quickly and unanimously passed.

I wrote to the Texas governor. (Hard to keep him anonymous--sorry.) There's gotta be someone in=2 0government who responds to a citizen who's also a scholar on a particular legislative topic. The governor can't possibly sign this "origin of the hamburger and french fries" bill--it had no public notice, it's patently untrue, and completely ridiculous on its face! He signed it.

What to do now?

I would appreciate if the Texas Monthly would publish this letter.

The Texas representative who submitted this "Original Home of the Hamburger" bill must do the right thing and issue its immediate repeal.

The same Texas representative (or our governor, or both) should demand the same truth from Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, which opened in 1900 and has also (falsely) claimed to be the original home of the hamburger. A Connecticut legislator once got the Library of Congress to "officially" declare that Louis Lunch served the first hamburger. The Library of Congress must be made to take this back.

Texas has a wonderful "true" food history that has been largely ignored. This history is much more than Tex-Mex, more than barbecue, more than chili, more than chicken fried steak, more than corny dogs, more than sno cones, more than sweet tea, more than Texas toast, and more than hamburgers served with mustard. The Bob Bullock Texas History Museum tells almost nothing about food history. I have told anyone who'll listen that Texas sh ould have a food museum, just like the recently opened Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in New Orleans. This museum could be located in the capital city of Austin (perhaps associated with the Bob Bullock Museum) or in San Antonio (a capital of Tex-Mex).

If this is published, the Texas Monthly has made its correction .

Governor and Texas legislators, your correction is next.