Louis' Lunch and the curious history of the hamburger

Louis' Lunch and the curious history of the hamburger

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The hamburger is a simple being. Meant only as a means to an end, it never had aspirations to do anything more than fill a hole in a hungry man’s stomach. However, the hamburger is now hailed as a hero of fast food. It is an icon of America and is revered in countries as far as Australia, where it’s a staple of barbecue culture. So how exactly was this incredible dish created?

In 1900, a man named Gary Widmore approached a lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut. Greeted by Danish immigrant Louis Lassen, he had arrived at Louis’ Lunch. In need of sustenance but short of time, Lassen’s customer presented a challenge that would change the course of food history.

"Louie! I'm in a rush,” he stated. “Slap a meatpuck between two planks and step on it!" Lassen pressed together a blend of ground steak trimmings and cooked them in an upright grill, serving the resulting disc of grilled meat between two slices of toasted bread. This new invention, whatever it was, went down a treat - and Lassen added it to his menu.

People came from all over New England to sample this culinary curiosity and soon, people began to create their own versions. Having taken up residence on George Street, New Haven, Louis’ Lunch moved into an old tannery.

Before long, Lassen’s bread-and-meat meal was being made in homes and restaurants up and down the country. Many new iterations came into being and as burgers went global, it became clear that this trend had taken on a life of its own.

However, at Louis’ Lunch, nothing changed. Run by the same family, they used the same recipe, the same premises and the same ethos which had served the community for decades. That is, until 1975.

There were plans to construct a high-rise building where Louis’ Lunch stood and the restaurant’s fate was uncertain. It was undoubtedly an important piece of history, but this small building was obstructing big plans. After a 10-year battle, it lost its location.

However, due the restaurant’s size, the Lassen family were able to load it onto a truck and transport it two blocks to the location where it currently stands: 263 Crown Street. It’s here that I found myself in a sizable queue to sample the world’s first hamburger.

Lunchtime at Louis

I wasn't prepared for how small the restaurant would be however, it has something of a Tardis effect. Etched with thousands of names and messages, the archaic pew-style seating adds to a palpable sense of history. The signatures continue onto the bar, which frames the toil of a select number of experts as they cook burgers in the same upright grills dating back to 1898.

The ingredients, the method and the finished product are all of utmost importance. The burger is cooked medium rare but, if you dare, you can ask for it to be well done. No condiments are allowed and permitted toppings are limited to onion, lettuce, tomato and cheese. "This is not Burger King," states an especially sassy sign. "You don't get it your way. You have it my way, or you don't get the damn thing."

Served on a paper plate, there is - fittingly - a feel of utility to the experience. Nestled amongst strangers nearly all tucking into the same thing, it was time to finally try it. I’d gone for medium rare with lettuce, tomato and cheese. A round patty between two square slices of toast, it does look slightly absurd. But the taste is second-to-none. Made of a blend of five different cuts of meat, it was moist and juicy with deep, rich flavours. My only regret was not buying two hamburgers, like my friends had.

From chicken burgers to veggie burgers to the $570bn industry which the hamburger has fuelled, this dish has had an enormous impact. Whether it’s Epic Meal Time videos or the towering burger stacks we see on social media, the versatility of and enthusiasm for Louis Lassen’s creation is abundantly clear.

Of course, the origins of the hamburger are hotly disputed and its name stands testament to its previous iterations. The hamburg steak, a ground beef patty, hails from Hamburg and was made popular by migrating Germans. There are various other claimants of the invention, involving stories of meatball sandwiches, the Fourth of July and a county fair that ran out of sausages. However, the Library of Congress credits Louis Lassen as the first person to have made a hamburger - which is good enough for me.

With a global fanbase, bricks were sent from all over the world to replace those which couldn’t be saved during the restaurant’s relocation process. It is as much a testament to internationalism as it is a part of New Haven history. It’s this sense of community and togetherness that gives Louis’ Lunch a feel of authenticity and heritage. But most importantly, their hamburgers taste amazing.


Hero image credit: Michael Olak