Hamburg’s claim to the hamburger is all sizzle, no steak

By Steve Cichon

The hamburger has been an American food staple for more than 100 years, and for that entire time, there have been people fighting over who “invented” the hamburger.

For the last 30 years, a campaign to claim Hamburg, N.Y., as the birthplace of the hamburger has been raging with enthusiasm, but few facts.

After a discussion with a “true Hamburg hamburger believer” several years ago, I began vigorously researching the claim that Ohio’s Menches Brothers served the first hamburger at their travelling sandwich stand at the Erie County Fair in 1885.

I wanted very badly to find facts to substantiate the myth, but alas, at every turn, years of research have pointed away from, not towards the Hamburg story.

That starts with the story itself.

As far as recorded history goes, the purported 1885 hamburger invention wasn’t written until John Kunzog’s 1970 book, “Tanbark and Tinsel,” which is subtitled “A Galaxy of Glittering Gems from the Dazzling Diadem of Circus History.”

Kunzog, of Jamestown, was 79 when he self-published the book through a vanity press. He tells the story of meeting Frank Menches 50 years earlier in 1920, and says that Menches told him that he invented the hamburger at the Erie County Fair.

The Menches Brothers, goes the story, ran out of pork for their sandwiches. A butcher would only offer some ground beef. They played around with it and created this amazing sandwich.

After a several-paragraph aside about the history of Hamburg, Germany, it was explained that the sounds of “tinkling cowbells” in nearby pastures reminded Menches of Germany.

That, along with the fact that the fair was commonly called “The Hamburg Fair,” was enough inspiration for Frank Menches to coin the phrase “hamburger” on the spot when someone asked what this new sandwich creation was called.

The story continues that they sent a boy to get some wallpaper and charcoal, and they wrote “hamburgers” in “gigantic letters” on the paper they tacked to the stand.

Aside from the fact that the story in the book is a 50-year-old reminiscence of an event that purportedly happened 35 years before that, it’s questionable because in 1938, Frank Menches told virtually the same story to the Akron Beacon Journal. Except the fair was Ohio’s Summit County Fair, not Hamburg’s Erie County Fair.

Frank Menches’ obituary, as it appeared on the front page of the Courier-Express in 1951.

In 1922, Menches told a different Akron newspaper reporter a different story about how he invented hamburgers, this one involving the meat squeezing out the ends of hot dogs. In the same article, Menches claimed to have invented the ice cream cone. At other times, he laid claim to having invented Cracker Jack.

When Frank Menches died in 1951, his obituary was carried in newspapers around the country, under the headline “Hamburger inventor dies.” Both United Press International and the Associated Press articles quote Menches as saying he invented the hamburger at the Summit County Fair.

The wire service stories were carried in both the Buffalo Evening News and the Buffalo Courier-Express without any mention of Hamburg, the Erie County Fair or any Western New York ties for Menches.

It wasn’t just those obituaries. If the hamburger was invented in Hamburg, no one in Hamburg or Western New York knew about it for more than 85 years.

When the Menches Brothers were mentioned in a 1937 Courier-Express article, Hamburg did not come up. In 1968, Courier-Express Food Editor Alice Partridge writes about the origins of the hamburger. She mentions the Menches, but not Hamburg.

For the Town of Hamburg’s 1962 sesquicentennial celebration, town historians crafted an in-depth, 100-page book about the town’s history, including several pages about the Erie County Fair. The word hamburger doesn’t appear in the book.

The story of Hamburg and the hamburger begins to gain traction around 1985, and the “centennial celebration” of the hamburger. In the time since then, the legend has taken on a life of its own.

In 1992, Hamburg Mayor Richard Hansen and Erie County Legislator Bert Villarini made pleas for residents to call an 800 number to let White Castle know they are misstating the birthplace of the hamburger.

The following year, Hamburg gained national attention when the town board voted against accepting a grant from Burger King to paint the town water tower as a hamburger.

2018 designs offered for the painting of Hamburg’s water tower in celebration of the hamburger.

For all the mooing that’s been done over the last 30 years, the most damaging arrows in the hide of Hamburg’s claim come from a pair of contemporary 1880s newspaper stories.

An 1883 New York Sun story about a lunch counter next to a cigar factory starts, “Give me six hamburgers, four chops, half a pound of sliced ham and five cents’ worth of pickles.”

It goes on to describe how the meat “with some bread makes for a fair meal.”

“Those flat, brown meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg steaks; the people call them hamburgers,” said the woman behind the counter, two years before the Menches brothers might have sold something similar at the Erie County Fair.

The final blow to the Hamburg legend seems decisive.

The Erie County Fair was held from Sept. 16 to 18 in 1885.

A hamburger recipe, as published in the Buffalo Express, five weeks before the claimed invention of the entree at the Erie County Fair.

Five weeks earlier, on Aug. 4, 1885, the Buffalo Express printed a recipe for Hamburg Steak, referring to the minced steak twice by the name  “hamburger.”

If Frank and Charlie Menches did serve hamburgers at the Erie County Fair in 1885, it’s just as likely that someone clipped the recipe for them from the Buffalo newspaper a few weeks earlier.

The Hamburg hamburger legend is a fun story, which is how most folks present it. The fact that the story has been told and repeated is a great part of our history– but for the record, the facts show that the great American hamburger was not “created” in Hamburg.