July 28: The World’s First Hamburger?

 

July 28, 1900 was shaping up to be an average summer day for lunch wagon owner and German immigrant Louis Lassen, who was serving sandwiches and other hot meals to factory workers in New Haven during their lunch breaks. Suddenly, a local businessman, Gary Widmore, rushed up to Lassen’s wagon and desperately asked for a quick and delicious lunch he could take on the go. (According to Lassen family lore, Widmore exclaimed, “Louie! I’m in a rush, slap a meatpuck between two planks and step on it!”) Lassen then took some ground-up steak trimmings, quickly cooked them in a vertical broiler, and served them between two pieces of toast — and thus, the hamburger was born.

07-28 Louis Lunch wagon (1907-1916)
Louis Lassen inside his New Haven lunch wagon, circa 1907-1916

Claims regarding “the first hamburger in America” are a dime a dozen, but unlike those based in Texas, Ohio, upstate New York, or elsewhere, New Haven has physical evidence, in addition to a wealth of oral history, to support its carnivorous claim to fame. In 2000, the Library of Congress officially acknowledged that the first American hamburger was served by Louis Lassen. The very same broiler that cooked up the first hamburger in 1900 — which dates to the 1890s — is still used to cook hamburgers at Louis’ Lunch today, 120 years later. In addition to being the birthplace of the American hamburger, Louis Lunch is also the oldest continuously operating hamburger restaurant in the United States. Today, the Lassen family continues to own and operate the famous eatery, which occupied a small brick building on George Street in New Haven from 1917 to the 1970s when it was moved to its current location at 261 Crown Street. Visitors can order an “original burger” made of ground steak trimmings pressed into a patty and served between two pieces of toast. (Be forewarned, however: In the name of authenticity, ketchup is not allowed!)

A recent article in Connecticut Magazine by Albie Yuravitch (see link below) adds credence to claims that Louis’s was not the first official American hamburger. It cites no less than four sources providing hamburgers as early as 1894. Still, Louis’ Lunch’s claim to be the oldest continually run hamburger stand in the U.S., is , and will remain, incontestable – at least for now.

Further Reading

Albie Yuravitch, “New Evidence Busts New Haven’s Claim as ‘birthplace of the burger,’ Connecticutmag.com

Owen Rogers, “Louis Lunch and the Birth of the Hamburger,” connecticuthistory.org

History of Louis Lunch,” Louis Lunch restaurant website