Where hamburgers came from

Russian Tartars and German hackfleisch

Matmail: All right, this has bugged me for years. Hamburgers. There's no ham in them! In fact, these days there is little meat of any kind in them. How did they get named? Is it a corruption of “hand burger”? What's a burger? I don’t get it. — Nameless, @gi.com

Hand burger? Hand burger? You’ve thought way too much about this if that seems likely to you. You’re also easily bugged, I’d say. Once upon a time, Russian Tartars invented a dee-licious dish made with the toughest cow cuts — tartar steak, or, if it costs more than $15 a plate, steak tartare. Shred the meat and eat it raw. As the Tartars galloped across Europe in the late Middle Ages, they spread the shredded-beef word. Bunless, it became popular po’ folks food and took on regional names. In the German seaport of Hamburg, it became Hamburger hackfleisch, “chopped up meat from Hamburg." The U.S. got a wave of German immigrants and the hamburger in the late 1800s. We added the bun around 1900. And if we can be sure there’s no ham in a hamburger, can we have equal confidence about the contents of a hot dog? More problematical.

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