By Maxime Tamsett, CNN
Whether you’re in the heartland of the United States or halfway around the world, when you crave an American meal, you’re probably biting into a burger.
While most Americans can’t remember a time without them, burgers didn’t start to become hugely popular in the United States until about a century ago.
Few burger restaurants from that era continue to serve burgers made with daily fresh ground meat. Even fewer are serving these burgers the way they were made back in the day.
George Motz, a burger specialist, spent more than 20 years of his life traveling across the United States in search of burgers. After producing, shooting, editing and directing his 2004 documentary film “Hamburger America”, Motz published a state-by-state burger guide and then his first cookbook, “The Great American Burger Book”, in 2016.
Most recently, he hosted Burger Scholar Sessions on Complex Media’s “First We Feast,” which is in its fourth season on YouTube.
“I like to say I’ve eaten more burgers in more places than you,” Motz said.
We’d have to agree: Motz estimates he’s probably eaten some 20,000 burgers in his lifetime, with no plans to stop anytime soon.
On his travels, Motz has found burger joints that continue to pitch their burgers like they did over a century ago.
While these establishments remain few in number unlike their myriad fast-food chain counterparts, they hold a key to American hamburger history.
Motz shared five of the classics with CNN Travel. But first, a bit of burger history.
How the hamburger became an American classic
The burger has a well traveled history.
According to Motz, the hamburger’s origin story begins in Mongolia in the 13th century, when the Mongols and Tatars were fighting.
“Apparently, the Tatars had a strong taste for raw mutton. They rode all day with raw mutton under their saddles. When they finally set up camp, they would take this raw, hot mutton, chop it up, probably add some spices or something, and eat it that way.
The dish eventually made its way to ship workers and ports bordering the Baltic Sea, allowing it to reach more western parts of Europe, including Scandinavia.
From there it eventually made its way to Germany and the port of Hamburg. When it arrived in Germany several centuries later, the dish changed from raw mutton to ground cooked beef, known today as frikadellen.
Motz explained that while German migrants waited for their ships, they ate frikadellen as a cheap and tasty meal option. When they left Hamburg for the United States in the mid-19th century, the migrants brought with them their knowledge of the dish.
“The Frikadellen eventually made their way to the United States, and I can imagine that frikadellen meant nothing to most people who lived in the United States, unless you were German. So they had to change the name at that time to “Hamburg-style steak” or simply, Hamburg steak.
As German migrants moved west across the United States to farm, state fairs also began to appear.
Farmers from all walks of life attended these fairs to learn about different farming practices and equipment. According to Motz, German migrants set up their own stalls serving Hamburg steak, considered an ethnic food at the time.
While hot dogs predate hamburgers as fair food, Motz says he thinks the hot dog inspired several places to eventually start putting Hamburg steaks on bread, making sandwiches out of them. in Hamburg, and finally the hamburger.
No one can say for sure who did it first.
“There were about 7-9 claims all over the Midwest, from Texas to Ohio to Wisconsin, too many claims. Unfortunately, there’s no way to definitively prove who put Hamburg’s first steak on a bun,” Motz said. “It happened everywhere at the same time, and nobody talked about it.”
Pursuing an American Classic
The trend caught on and restaurants started serving the sandwiches. Burgers are now a pride of American cuisine, Motz said.
“The burger is pretty much the only food invention in America for the last 100 or so years. It started out as an ethnic food from Germany, but we embraced it and made it different by putting it on bread .
Having stood the test of time, from the Great Depression to Covid-19 and everything in between, some of the earliest burger restaurants remain standing today.
Whether you’re on a road trip or a burger pilgrimage, here are five burger joints still serving up fresh and original American burgers to visit in the United States:
Louis’ Lunch (New Haven, Connecticut)
Among the oldest establishments serving classic burgers is Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut.
Now in its fourth generation of ownership, this family restaurant has been serving customers since 1895.
Using fresh ground meat daily, Louis’ Lunch cooks its burgers upright (yes, you read that right) in its three vertical cast-iron stoves dating back to 1898.
Held in a grill basket, the burgers are slid into the ovens and cooked by the flames on both sides.
Choosing your hamburger is not complicated either. “The Original Burger” is your only option, served on white bread. To enhance the flavor of the meat, the only toppings you can add are onions, cheese and a slice of tomato. If you’re hoping for ketchup, you’ll have to go elsewhere!
White Manna (Hackensack, New Jersey)
Located in Hackensack, New Jersey, White Manna has achieved local and national fame. White Manna was founded in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair and later moved to Hackensack in 1946, according to its website.
Famous for their sliders served on Martin’s Potato Rolls, this old-school restaurant uses extra lean ground beef delivered fresh daily.
With cheese and onion topping options, you can’t go wrong with this must-try burger destination.
Powers Hamburgers (Fort Wayne, Indiana)
Originally founded in Dearborn, Michigan, before moving to its current home in Indiana, Powers Hamburgers has been serving the city of Fort Wayne since 1940.
Onions are a must-have with any slider, whether you’re biting into a regular burger or a double cheeseburger. Don’t expect garden variety toppings like lettuce or tomato, and whether you add ketchup, mayonnaise, or hot sauce after serving the burger is up to you.
Mike Hall, owner and cook at Powers, estimates that about 1,300 to 1,500 burgers come off the grill every day.
“There’s no real place like Powers. We serve a unique burger in a unique building, and it’s a place where people come to relive their memories. It is truly a blessing to be involved with it for all these years.
Cozy Inn (Salina, Kansas)
The Cozy Inn celebrated a century of serving guests in Salina, Kansas in March. As one of a select few burger joints, let alone companies, with such distinction, the Cozy Inn knows a thing or two about making delicious burgers.
“There’s a lot of love involved in making these things,” owner Steve Howard said. “It’s simple; lean meat, salt and pepper, fresh onions, then we give you the choice of ketchup, mustard and pickle. We’ve been doing it this way for 100 years.
Smoky River Meats, a local butcher, supplies the restaurant with fresh ground meat daily. Opened in 1922, the Cozy Inn claims to be one of the few remaining six-stool restaurants in America.
Hamburger Wagon (Miamisburg, Ohio)
Long before food trucks were a thing, the Hamburger Wagon made its way onto the Miamisburg, Ohio scene in 1913.
The Hamburger Wagon was originally created to provide food for refugees from the Great Deluge in Miamisburg, according to its website. After the floodwaters receded, locals demanded more Hamburger Wagon sliders, and it’s been one of the city’s premier dining experiences ever since.
Employees have been transporting this mobile restaurant for more than a century. Like many of the oldest burger joints in the country, Hamburger Wagon’s menu is no frills; either a single or double, served with pickle, onion, salt and pepper.
“No stinky cheese or sloppy sauces!” is slapped right in the center of the menu. If you plan on going to the Hamburger Wagon, be sure to bring cash.
Why Hamburger History Matters
Like many things after their inception, the burger was commoditized, from the shape of patties and buns to the practice of freezing patties.
So whether they know it or not, burger restaurants like the ones listed above play an active role in preserving the original American burger.
“The hamburger is a very important part of working-class roots in America,” Motz told CNN. “Burgers fed every factory worker during the industrial age.”
To anyone who might be skeptical of the restaurants’ worn look or how they cook their burgers, Motz points out that many of these places have been open for over a century for a reason.
“Some of these places look greasy, some look old, some may look tired, but they really need to be enjoyed for what they are, which is the original American burger.”
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