Nosh Box: Battle of the Burgers

The folks at White Castle, the burger chain that has operated in the Mid West and New York for more than a century, claim Otto Krause invented the hamburger in Germany in 1891.


As an all-American food-favorite, we consume about 50 billion burgers a year.

Memorial Day’s passing marks the kickoff of grilling season. While year-round fare, hamburgers emerge in June, as their peak period kicks off. They’ll be the No. 1 food searing on the grill during the summer months ahead.

All-American Icon – As an all-American food-favorite, we consume about 50 billion burgers a year. This includes homemade, those at fast-food outlets, fast-casual eateries, and restaurants that serve burgers. That total is two-and-a-half times the 20 billion hot dogs eaten each year, and works out to three burgers a week for every person in the United States.

Uncertain Heritage – Despite its all-American favorite status, attempts to trace the hamburger’s roots reveal no clear-cut lineage—with some indications that it might be an outlander.

The principal domestic pretender, who claims authentication by the Library of Congress, is Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1900 he used a vertical gas broiler to cook a ground ground-beef patty that he served on square toasted bread. Dave Thomas, Wendy’s founder, inverted this format in 1969, serving square patties on round buns.

The folks at White Castle, the burger chain that has operated in the Mid West and New York for more than a century, claim Otto Krause invented the hamburger in Germany in 1891.

Most food historians agree that hamburgers enjoyed a popularity boost in the U.S. from appearances at state and county fairs. So, employing the wisdom of Solomon, ABC News resolved the issue, reporting, “… it is entirely possible that more than one person came up with the idea at the same time in different parts of the country [or the world].”

What began as a one-off sandwich grew in popularity through fairground appearances. But beyond our kitchens and backyards grills, fortunes are at stake. The competition has morphed into an international battle for big burger bucks on so many levels.

The Chain Gang: At the top, fast-food burger chains compete using niche marketing and memorable Americana ad campaigns.

With roots dating back to 1940, McDonald’s is not the oldest, but the biggest, chain. Totals on their neon brag-signs froze in 1994, showing “Over 99 Billion Sold.” Now 25 years later, industry sources estimate nearly 60 billion more.

Debuting nationally in 1968, the Big Mac remains their mainstay. At one time more American children could identify Ronald McDonald than Santa Claus, thanks to kid-targeted ads, and plastic toys tucked into Happy Meals. But Mickey D’s current retail focus has shifted to touting unfrozen beef patties.

“Have it your way” folks at Burger King introduced their signature Whopper in 1957, and it remains a major player with their flame-broiled burger niche.

Next in line, Wendy’s has been trying to squeeze a square patty into a round bun ever since Dave Thomas named his chain after his 10-year-old daughter. Perhaps the overhanging square corners prompted their successful 1984 marketing campaign: “Where’s the beef?” But their current pitch claims, “…fresh, never frozen beef on every hamburger, every day."

White Castle – This Midwestern brand may not register with left-coasters, even though local Costco warehouses experimented selling boxes of 32 frozen sliders nearly 20 years ago. Founded in 1921, the steam-grilled miniature patties have holes in them so they cook faster. Their Americana claims to fame are selling by the sack, and thereby originating fast food to go.

Middleweight Outlets –

These fast food and fast casual brands are all contending, but in a lesser division.

In-N-Out Burger boasts a cult-like following for its standard fare, and its not-so-secret off-menu selections. Like Starbucks, it's developed its own vernacular for ordering.

Five Guys at one time was the fastest-growing U.S. fast food chain, with eager West Coast fans awaiting openings from this D.C. group. Locally they operate outlets in Alameda, Alamo, and Oakland, with more planned.

Umami Burger – Named after the fifth taste, and self-proclaimed “the butcher’s burger,” this chain adds umami ingredients like soy sauce; miso; and dried, fermented, smoked tuna flakes to its ground beef. One of its three Bay Area outlets operates in Oakland,

Restaurants/Butcher Burger-Masters – Three sterling examples in this category include Belcampo Meats, Clove & Hoof, and Gott’s Roadside Restaurant, where the menus may be diverse, but the burgers are spectacular.

Local Editions – First, TrueBurger and Super Duper have local roots and offer gourmet burgers. Next, their name says it all: Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers. Barney’s offers two Berkeley outlets, and one in Oakland. Finally, tucked into a corner of Oakland’s Lincoln Square Shopping Center, Sparky’s Giant Burgers grills American burger classics.

Poseur Burgers – Clamoring aboard the burger bandwagon, salmon and tuna seafood burgers first emerged. Next vegetarian options appeared: pressed patties cobbled from beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and tofu. These look like—more than taste like—real meat patties. In fact they taste just like something cobbled from beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and tofu!

Science recently breached the plant-based burgers frontier. A David vs. Goliath contest matches international food giant Nestlé’s Incredible Burger, against the Impossible Burger manufactured in Impossible Foods’ Oakland factory. Burger King offers the latter burger on its charbroiled menu.

A third contender, the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat, is available now at Carl’s Jr. Not only are these pretenders alleged to look and taste like meat, but they also bleed like meat, when grilled and cut.

Think you know your hamburgers? Because of recent innovations it’s unlikely you’ve tried the latest iterations. Your local butcher or meat cutter can order plant-based burgers for you to try at home. So don't rest on your burger laurels until you’ve wolfed down at least a few of these latest versions.

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