Hamburger Helper – Solving the Greatest WhoDunIt? In Culinary History

Bookmark and Share
(The first part in a series of seven)

“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today.”

When J. Wellington Wimpy first voiced that phrase on December 28, 1934 in Fleischer Studios short “We Aim to Please,” Popeye’s 17th theatrical cartoon, [http://popeye.wikia.com/wiki/We_Aim_to_Please] the White Castle hamburger chain had already been around for 13 years. By the time E.C. Segar added the character of Wimpy to his King Features Syndicate cartoon Thimble Theatre in 1931, White Castle was well on its way to selling 50 million hamburgers. It would achieve that mark in 1941.

A year earlier, brothers Dick and Mac McDonald moved their father’s food stand from Route 66 in Monrovia, California to the streets of San Bernardino. They rechristened their restaurant “McDonald’s Bar-B-Q.” Eight years later they converted their carhops to self-serve and reduced the menu to burgers, fries, and milkshakes. They reopened their new fast food establishment on December 12, 1948 under the name “McDonald’s.”

That same year Harry and Esther Snyder opened the first In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, California just outside of Los Angeles. It would be the first fast food restaurant in California to feature a drive-thru ordering and pick-up system. By 1958, on their ten-year anniversary, In-N-Out’s five locations celebrated by switching from bottled pop to fountain drinks. (In contrast, Wisconsin’s Sheboygan County celebrated the opening of McDonald’s 121st restaurant on June 19, 1958.)

A year later, in 1959, two Miami franchisees (and Cornell grads) by the name of James McLamore and David Edgerton would buy the faltering Insta-Burger King company. The duo immediately renamed it “Burger King” and expanded it to 250 restaurants by the time they sold the business to Pillsbury in 1967. (In contrast, McDonald’s opened its 1,000th restaurant in 1968 in Des Plaines, Illinois.)

The very next year, on November 15, 1969, Dave Thomas, after becoming a millionaire working for Colonel Harland Sanders, opened the first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio. Today, Wendy’s sports more than 6,000 locations. (In contrast, McDonald’s has more than 36,000 restaurants in operation today.)

Although the fast food business began in earnest at the outset of the roaring twenties, it took the logistical problem solvers of World War II to provide both the business model and the systems technology to get the industry as we know it today off the ground. Just how big is this industry? In the United States alone, fast food generated $200 billion in revenue during the year 2015 (according to the internet site Franchise Help). Worldwide revenues topped $570 billion.

Nearly every one of us has either worked at a fast food restaurant or knows someone who has. Today, the industry employs nearly four million people (per the Statista web-site). While encompassing many types of food today, it’s clear there is one item that spurred this industry: the hamburger. This makes the hamburger possibly the most important invention in all of mankind’s history.

Thanks in part to both government statistics and required disclosures of publicly traded companies, we possess a veritable cornucopia of data, information, and history over the past 100 years or so. Yet, the actual origins of the hamburger sandwich remain hidden in the cloudy realm of hearsay, hype, and hometown hope. Close your eyes for a moment and let’s explore these mysterious tales of the birth of the first hamburger…

Within the mists of time lie buried uncoverable answers to history’s most compelling questions. What really happened to the lost continent of Atlantis? How did ancient Greeks possess the technology to create the Antikythera mechanism and what did they use it for? Why did hundreds of people suddenly start dancing in the streets of Strasbourg during July 1518 and then, just as suddenly, die? Who was Jack the Ripper? And, finally, where did Amelia Earhart end up?

These questions pale to the ultimate mystery. It’s the mystery behind something that has touched us all and will continue to touch generations into the future. It’s the mystery behind a trillion-dollar industry. It’s the mystery behind something so simple, so common, so obvious, that no one bothered to write it down. It is, the birth of the world’s first hamburger.

Did the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis really inaugurate the “hamburg sandwich” as purportedly described in a New York Tribune article that same year and as taught by McDonald’s famous Hamburger University?

Or was the first hamburger made in 1900 at Louis’ Lunch, a diner in New Haven, Connecticut as reported by the New York Times and recognized as such by the Library of Congress?

Or did Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis first place a ground beef patty on bread in “the late 1880’s” as suggested by the Dallas Morning News?

And, if the hamburger really was first invented in 1885 either by Charles Nagreen at the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin, or by Charles and Frank Menches at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York, which fair occurred first?

Join me as we explore these various origin stories and use classic crime solving techniques to solve one of history’s greatest culinary whodunits in…

Sherlock Holmes and the Shrine of the Four (and a half?)

…continued next week…