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It's an L.A. thing

Our burgers are the best, with good reason: We made them here first.

June 09, 2004|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

We own the hamburger. L.A. is burgertown, U.S.A.

We're passionate about our burgers, the way New Yorkers are about Cantonese food. Besides religion and politics, the subject you shouldn't raise at the dinner table around here is who makes the best burger. Or if you must, stick the Apple Pan people and the Fatburger people at opposite ends of the table.

We hear the patties sizzle, we smell the smoke from the grill, and a bell goes off. We're about to enter the burger dimension, a jolly jungle of rich browned meat, crunchy lettuce, tangy pickles, rude onions and sweet and sour condiments. Life is good. Life is adorable.

Why do we care so much about the hamburger? It's the symbol of eagerness and independence. It's the food of the car culture that has been the estate of L.A. youth since the 1940s.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 12, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Hamburger history -- An article in Wednesday's Food section said the first Fatburger stand was at San Vicente and South La Cienega boulevards in Los Angeles. It was on Western Avenue between 30th and 31st streets.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 16, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Hamburger history -- A June 9 article incorrectly said the location of the first Fatburger stand was the corner of San Vicente and South La Cienega boulevards. The stand was at Western Avenue between 30th and 31st streets.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Phone numbers -- In a listing of hamburger stands in the June 9 Food section, the wrong phone number was given for Woody's Smorgasburger. The correct number is (310) 414-9344. Also, in a review of Eastside Market & Italian Deli in Wednesday's Food section, the wrong area code was listed. The correct number is (213) 250-2464; the fax number is (213) 250-8064.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 23, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Phone numbers -- In a listing of hamburger stands in the June 9 Food section, the wrong phone number was given for Woody's Smorgasburger. The correct number is (310) 414-9344. Also, in a review of Eastside Market & Italian Deli in the June 16 Food section, the wrong area code was listed. The correct number is (213) 250-2464; the fax number is (213) 250-8064.

That's why so many hamburger stands have kept their old-fashioned signs, and new ones often adopt a retro style. Going to the burger stand or drive-in suggests the whole James Dean, ducktail haircut, "American Graffiti" state of mind, and we know what that means: Go where you want, grab a burger when you feel like it, cruise with your homies. The world is your oyster -- or rather, your combo with fries.

It's no accident that so many national burger chains began here. Bob's Big Boy started in Glendale in 1936, McDonald's in San Bernardino in 1948, Carl's Jr. in Anaheim in 1956 and Johnny Rockets on Melrose Avenue in 1986. Fatburger, which was founded on the corner of San Vicente and South La Cienega boulevards in 1952, is just beginning a major national expansion. And we have loads of local burger haunts that have been around for decades.

And so has the hamburger itself: It's the iconic American fast food of the 20th century.

History on our side

The title of birthplace of the hamburger has been claimed by a number of places around the country. The problem is, they don't have evidence they were serving a fried ground beef patty as a sandwich (rather than as a "hamburger steak" on a plate) before 1904.

But there are news stories about hamburger carts in Chicago and Los Angeles dating from 1894. (Fine work, Chicago, but in the end you didn't have the vocation for it. Can anybody name a famous Chicago hamburger stand?)

So those other towns that have been claiming to be the home of the hamburger had better rethink their boasts. I'm talking about you, Seymour, Wis., Athens, Texas, and Summit County, Ohio.

And especially about you, St. Louis, Mo. For decades the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair has been called the origin point of the hamburger, but as of right now that claim is out of the question. Maybe the World's Fair publicized the hamburger, but face it, everybody -- this year isn't the 100th anniversary of the hamburger. It's at least the 110th.

People often say the history of the hamburger is shrouded in myth. It sure is.

Over and over, you read that Russians brought the idea of chopped meat to northern Germany in the 14th century, having learned it from the Tatars, "who shredded low-quality beef from Asian cattle to make it edible and digestible." According to this evidence-free tale, that's how the port city of Hamburg got the custom of eating chopped raw beef.

Well, come on. People have been chopping meat for a long time -- a 2nd century Roman cookbook has a whole chapter on chopped meat dishes. The Germans didn't have to learn about it from anybody else.

It's true that Central Asian people such as the Tatars have always been big on chopping meat, but it's hard to see how this could have led to the hamburger, even by way of 14th century Russians moving to Germany. Central Asians don't eat chopped meat raw -- or in patties. They fry it up loose, stirring carefully to keep all the fragments separate.

However it happened, chopped meat did become associated with the city of Hamburg, where it is said to have been popular with seamen. OK, now it would be nice to know how the "Hamburg steak" became an upscale dish in America. There's a menu from the famous Delmonico's dating from 1834 or 1836 that lists Hamburg steak. How did the fanciest restaurant in New York start serving a dockside snack?

The fact is, we don't know for sure that Delmonico's Hamburg steak was chopped, because some Hamburg steaks weren't. The "Hamburgh steak" in "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book" (1884) was round steak pounded thin and rolled around a filling of fried onions.

That sort of Hamburg steak -- and maybe Delmonico's, for all we know -- might not have anything to do with the German sailors' snack. Hamburg was one of the wealthiest cities in Germany, with many contacts with the outside world, so there were any number of reasons for a restaurant owner or cookbook writer to associate a dish with it.

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