In January’s “Connecticut Files” we asked the question, “Is the legendary Louis’ Lunch really the birthplace of the burger?” Louis Lassen is said to have served the world’s first burger in New Haven in 1900. But there are several claimants to the burger-creation throne, and after plenty of digging, we concluded there is no verifiable answer to the question of who invented the meaty meal. Filmmaker and burger expert George Motz told us: “The claim that Louis’ Lunch has is semi-legit,” adding that other claims “are equally valid and equally muddy. There really is no solid claim.”
Recently, I received an email from a reader about our story. It read, in part: “I have been researching the history of the hamburger for decades. I found an advertisement in a Texas newspaper dating from 1894. It’s an announcement that appears about every two weeks in the Shiner Gazette out of Shiner, Texas, between April 12, 1894, to August 23, 1894. It goes: ‘Hamburger steak sandwiches served every day in the week at Barny’s Saloon, Moulton.’ ”
The emailer then slips into the fanciful: “Can you imagine a Western showing John Wayne and a bunch of other cowboys inside Barny’s Saloon drinking straight whiskey and eating hamburger steak sandwiches? Well, I guess they did just that.”
Intrigued, I clicked on the provided newspaper archive link and, sure enough, there’s the Barny’s announcement. Clearly, this is not one of the well-known burger origin stories. Had this emailer cracked the burger code? Wanting to know more, I searched online, finding an exhaustive 2018 story on the origin of the hamburger by a writer named Chris Carosa, who briefly mentions Barny’s as “the earliest reference I’ve found (so far)” of the burger.
On the same article page, Carosa writes of a report on the making of a hamburger in the July 23, 1894, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chron cries: “Odors of the Onion — A New Night Feature of City Life — Breezes Pregnant With the Hamburger — How Curbstone Chefs Dispense Fragrant Food From Their Little Carts.” Below that is an illustration of a double-fisting “chef” flipping two hamburgers as hungry customers look on. The article also notes, “They love darkness whose deeds are evil.”
Ravenous for more bits of burger information, I kept up the online hunt. Another burger buff, Richard Auffrey, who goes by “The Passionate Foodie” on his food blog, points to 1894 as a breakthrough year. He, too, mentions Barny’s as the first published reference. But just three days after the April 12 Barny’s notice, the Chicago Tribune wrote of a Chi-Town “restaurant on wheels,” a “nocturnal sandwich wagon,” that served “hamburger steak sandwiches.” Just over a month later, on May 16, the Roanoke Times of Virginia ran an ad for The Concordia restaurant, which distinguished itself with not only “The Finest and Largest Glass of Beer in the City,” but also a hamburger steak sandwich.
Where there’s burger smoke, there’s fire — from April to July 1894, four burger mentions in four locations from coast to coast. “In 1894, the Hamburger Steak Sandwich was already known across the country, and not just in one limited region,” Auffrey writes on his blog. “If this sandwich had been invented in a specific city or town, it would have taken some time for its existence to have become known to others, and to spread to other parts of the country. So, its invention was likely at least a couple years before 1894, if not more.”
So, multiple pre-1900 burger references; I was about ready to make a ruling on the Louis’ claim. But knowing how sizzling the stakes are, I wanted a second opinion, one from an expert. I reached out to Motz, the “burger scholar,” for his reaction. “The Barny’s Saloon burger reference, in print, is an incredible discovery,” he writes in an email. “This is definitively to me the earliest known reference to a burger being served in an establishment. This does debunk the Louis’ Lunch claim.”
So be it. But what of the true origin story? Are we any closer to the first spark that lit the burger fire, the who, the where and the when? Auffrey and Motz are of a similar mind on this.
“It is also possible that there were multiple origins of the Hamburger sandwich, that people in different regions of the country created the sandwich around the same time,” Auffrey writes. “The problem is finding evidence of its creation and existence prior to 1894.”
Motz tells me: “As I’ve maintained, the oral history of the burger goes back even further than the 1894 mention in a Texas newspaper. Due to the transient nature of the state and county fairs where many of the first burgers were sold (we believe as early as the 1880s), there is no definitive origin date of the American hamburger.”
There you have it, we now have evidence that the burger existed at least as far back as 1894. Was Barny’s Saloon truly the first to cross the burger finish line? It doesn’t seem likely, but we may never know.
It was a bittersweet discovery for the emailer, a Connectican brimming with state pride whose identity I vowed to protect due to the combustible nature of the topic. “Finding this information hurts me terribly to admit,” he writes.
He concludes, “I guess Louis’ Lunch will have to be content with being the oldest continually run hamburger stand in the U.S., since Barny’s is gone and long forgotten!” Forgotten until now, that is.