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Burger's unclear origin feeds patty debate

"Hamburger Charlie" statue in Seymour, Wis.

KAI RYSSDAL: South Korean agriculture officials don't really care where the beef is. So long as it's not coming from the United States. What was once the third-largest overseas market for American cattle has sharply limited imports since Mad Cow disease was discovered here just over three years ago. Trade negotiators meeting in Washington this week haven't been able to come to an agreement on when shipments might begin again.

Domestically, beef's still big business. Tens of billions of dollars. And there's a food fight brewing over the origins of the humble hamburger. Brian Bull reports.


BRIAN BULL: It's late afternoon at Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. Fourth-generation proprietor Jeff Lassen is cooking beef patties in his brick, pub-style restaurant on a vertical, cast-iron broiler that's been in use for more than a century.
JEFF LASSEN: We started our business in 1895, and we stand by our claim that we did the first burger in 1900. We've been here 112 years and it's up to everybody else to prove their claims and last as long as we have.

Legend says founder Louis Lassen made history when he stuck a slab of chopped beef between two slices of toast for a customer on the run. That account has been repeated on shows like "Oprah" and "Good Morning America." The Library of Congress also calls Louis' Lunch the birthplace of the burger.

But more than 1,600 miles to the west, Texas Representative Betty Brown of Athens has filed a resolution challenging that claim. It says that the first hamburger was made by Athens resident Fletch Davis, at his lunch stand in the 1880s. Athens resident and booster Peggy Gould says Davis later visited the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

PEGGY GOULD: And set-up a stand on the midway, and started cooking his sandwich. The rest is history! Came up very quickly and lots of fun!

Gould is the town's reigning "Burger Queen" and helps organize the annual cook-off that celebrates Davis' invention. The event pulls in some $10,000 for local businesses. Not bad in a town of just 12,000 citizens — or should that be "burghers"? They take a lot of pride in those claims, but more than 1,200 miles to the north, in Wisconsin . . .

BILL COLLAR: There's no need to search, there's no need to roam, just come to Seymour, it's the hamburger's home.

That's Bill Collar, performing the role of local mascot "Hamburger Charlie". Collar says the town of Seymour, Wisconsin — population 3,500 — has proof that early food proprietor Charlie Nagreen created the great American burger at a county fair in 1885.

COLLAR: He was actually selling meatballs, and people weren't buying those so he packed a meatball in between two pieces of bread and squashed it together and called it a hamburger.

A local lawmaker is even crafting a resolution to refute Texas' claim on the burger and name Seymour as its rightful cradle. Collar says that in an Internet vote during the National Burger Festival in Akron, Ohio, last year, Seymour beat out the claims of rivals like Athens and New Haven.

JOHN MARIANI: Well, not to mix the metaphors but that's a lot of baloney in each case.

John Mariani, is author of the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. He says the terms "hamburger" and "hamburger steak" predate all known claims by decades. He says unlike Toll House cookies and Eggs Benedict, the hamburger's precise point of origin is lost in the mists of culinary time. Still, Moriani appreciates why the various claims stir up such supersized competition:

MARIANI: It's an icon of American food culture, so to claim that you were the first one to have invented it is quite a claim indeed and has a lot of marketing possibilities around it.

Seymour librarian and community organizer Elizabeth Timmins agrees. The town's annual Burger Fest draws in 20,000 visitors and generates up to $15,000 for local scholarships and improvement efforts. She says the national burger battle benefits everyone:

ELIZABETH TIMMINS: The more the merrier. I mean, if we can all have fun with it and compete with each other, and all help our communities by having this claim, I think it's great.

In Seymour, Wisconsin, I'm Brian Bull for Marketplace.

 

Marker in Athens, Texas
Bronze marker in Athens, Texas, acknowledges Fletch Davis' introduction of the hamburger at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. (Courtesy of Michael Hagerty)




Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Conn.
Louis Lunch in New Haven, Conn., where the Lassen family claims to have made the first-ever burger in 1900. (Courtesy of Jeff Lassen)




Sign in Seymour, Wis.
Sign outside Seymour, Wis., declaring it to be the home of the modern-day hamburger.

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