Why the Hamburger is Who You Are

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I had the most enjoyable of times a couple Thursday evenings ago. Perhaps a bit too enjoyable.

I was honored to have been invited to speak to the Mendon/Honeoye Falls Historical Society about a subject near and dear to my heart: the history of the hamburger. Not only is it the topic of my most recent book, but I have been lucky enough to talk about my research at events across the nation.

You can understand why I may have enjoyed myself just a tad more than I should have during my Historical Society presentation.

Oh, I tried and tried to maintain my sober scholarly best. But, as it wont to occur when I talk about matters I’ve pursued down rabbit holes of research with extreme vigor, passion inevitably gets the better of me. And when that enthusiasm inspires audience interest, it only fuels my gusto.

And gusto consumes time. Valuable minutes that can expand a perfectly timed talk.

Fear not, experience has taught me well. I’ve come to respect my better nature, and the crowd’s willingness – no, desire – to ride along with me on that undulating sea of unadulterated zeal.

More importantly, I’ve learned to structure my presentations into stand-alone modules. In this manner, when it appears I have to wrap things up before the end, I have a convenient (and moveable) conclusion at the ready.

And that’s what happened at 8:30pm that Thursday night. I ended at the end, but before I really wanted to. As the Historical Society members got up to leave, a few asked questions, but all felt they had seen “The Compleat Works” (no, that’s not a misspelling, it’s a historical spelling).

Not so one small group. I can’t remember if it was Bill Lane or Wayne Menz who asked, “What about Amelia Earhart? You promised to tell us about that mystery.”

OK, so I had a technical glitch (two, actually) that prevented me from showing a video that mentioned Amelia (and several other mysteries). But the real “missing piece” was the original end of the presentation. It really did answer a mystery more important than the final whereabouts of Amelia Earhart.

It is this original ending that I present to you now. Hopefully, you’ll not only see the universal power of it, but why I felt comfortable leaving it on the cutting room floor (remember, this was a Historical Society meeting). Here it is for your delight:

We all desperately want to know the answer to this single, all important question: “What is the meaning of my life?”

Imagine how you’d feel when you discovered the answer to this question. Imagine how much more productive your life would become. Imagine the joy and confidence you’d display in the stride of your everyday step.

Yes, you, just like everyone else, wants to know the meaning of your life. But there is no easy way for this answer to reveal itself to you.

No questionnaire exists that you can simply fill out, add your answers together, and find the meaning of your life. School may teach you “i before e except after c,” the associative, communicative, and distributive laws of mathematics, and the history of the world as we know it (Part I), but it doesn’t teach you how to unearth the meaning of your life.

You know it’s there – you can feel it in your gut – but it’s shrouded in an intangible cloud of mystery.

Doesn’t that sound like the origin of the hamburger?

Who sold the first hamburger? Fletcher Davis, of Athens, Texas at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair? Louis Lassen from his New Haven-based Lunch Wagon in 1900? Charles “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen at the Seymour, Wisconsin County Fair in 1885? Brothers Charles and Frank Menches of Akron, Ohio at the Erie County (New York) Fair in 1885?

Just like the meaning of your own life, there is no piece of paper that records who, what, where, or when the first hamburger was sold.

But, you know, you can get a pretty good idea of the answer. To both questions.

A little bit of easy research eliminates the impossible.

Searching old newspapers reveals roadside vendors flipping burgers on the streets of San Francisco and Chicago in the early 1890s. So, while Fletcher Davis in 1904 and Louis Lassen in 1900 may have sold hamburgers, they didn’t sell the first one. That same newspaper search also exposes the truth of Charlie Nagreen. If his own account of his first hamburger sale is true, the earliest he could have earned the “Hamburger” nickname was 1891.

Similarly, in the search for the meaning of your life, eliminate the impossible.

If you find writing an awful burden, the meaning of your life probably doesn’t involve writing. If you prefer to avoid all things involving politics, the meaning of your life likely won’t be found in the realm of government, debate, and certain professions. And, obviously, if you don’t like anchovies, not only will you never order them on your pizza, but the meaning of your life has nothing to do with them.

Your quest for answers goes beyond merely eliminating the impossible. If you’re really interested, you must put your nose to the grindstone and sniff out clues like a forensic detective. In the case of Charles and Frank Menches, their hamburger story left plenty of breadcrumbs, not the least of which was Frank’s age at the time of the event. This pointed us to 1885.

From the physical landmarks, to the weather, to the lack of availability of pork sausage, all these seemingly trivial matters provide a mountain of convincing circumstantial evidence.

Frank said they got a prime location next to the brand-new grandstand. The new grandstand was finally completed in time for the 1885 Erie County Fair. Frank said the weather was unusually warm. September 18th, the last day of the 1885 Erie County Fair, saw temperatures 20 degrees warmer than the first day.

Frank said the hot weather prevented the butcher from slaughtering a pig for only a small portion of meat. In fact, the swine epidemic of 1885 wiped out two-thirds of Western New York pigs, which might have been the real reason why the butcher didn’t want to waste the meat.

As you seek the meaning of your life, what clues has your own past left behind that could offer you insight?

Is there a specific task at work that regularly delights you? Maybe that’s the direction to pursue as you seek to find the meaning of your life.

Are there certain community activities, organizations, or events that you look forward to? It could be that they are pointing you toward the meaning of your life. Do you fondly recall particularly pleasant memories spending time with your children? Perhaps the meaning of your life is to nudge them so they are at least just a bit better off than you.

Remember, this is your journey. It’s a solo flight. Just like there’s no log of culinary history to guide you to who sold the first hamburger, you have no Sherpas to help direct you to some mountain guru who will tell you the meaning of your life.

Your boss won’t tell you the meaning of your life. Your boss just wants you to work hard. Your community leaders can’t tell you the meaning of your life. They’re too busy working hard to improve everyone’s lives, not just yours. And your kids, well, your kids are looking to you to tell them the meaning of their lives, not the other way around.

The best part of all this, though, is that you don’t need their help. You know the most about you. You know your desires. You know your needs. You know what you want to be. You know what you want to do.

Now think about how this relates to the life of the hamburger. The hamburger didn’t need any other food’s help to become history’s second greatest invention. The hamburger didn’t need any other food’s help to become the world’s biggest business. The hamburger did it all by itself (and perhaps it helped give its offspring, the French fry, a better life).

“So, yes, the hamburger is who YOU are…

But, the pizza… the pizza is what your BUSINESS is.”

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