Louis’ vies for title of burger birthplace

Jeff Lassen of Louis’ Lunch said his family has been serving the same hamburger — a grilled beef patty on white toast, with optional tomatoes, onions and cheddar cheese spread, but absolutely no ketchup — since his great-grandfather invented the iconic sandwich over 100 years ago.

“We’re about making the first hamburger sandwich in the United States, and we’re proud of it,” Lassen said. “To us it’s a matter of pride and tradition and family.”

The proprietors of Louis’ Lunch take pride in its claim to be the birthplace of the hamburger. The dispute over the burger’s origin has lately gotten nationwide attention.
Christopher Ripley
The proprietors of Louis’ Lunch take pride in its claim to be the birthplace of the hamburger. The dispute over the burger’s origin has lately gotten nationwide attention.

But the Lassen family’s story is only one of several about the origin of what Lassen called “America’s food.” A recent attempt by Texas State Representative Betty Brown to pass a bill naming the small town of Athens, Texas, the “original home of the hamburger” has stirred a national debate over the true home of the fast-food staple. Although Representative Brown introduced the bill in November, the story did not become national news until January, when New Haven mayor John DeStefano publicly defended the city’s status as the birthplace of the burger. The controversy has since garnered news coverage in outlets ranging from the The New York Times to Canada’s Winnipeg Free Press.

While people on both sides of the debate expressed bewilderment at the interest in what they said is fundamentally a matter of local pride, both towns emphatically defended their claim to the burger.

Peggy Gould, a resident of Athens, Texas, whose fellow Athenians have given her the unofficial title of “hamburger queen,” said neither she nor Brown had any idea what they were getting into when they hatched the idea to pass the unexpectedly controversial resolution. She said when she proposed the bill to Brown, she had simply hoped that it might garner some local news coverage and possibly drum up some extra publicity for Athens’ annual hamburger festival.

“It was just the naiveté of a small town, I guess,” Gould said. “We never really thought about what the hamburger means to Americans. It’s our staple — I mean, we really live for hamburgers in America. It’s such a big deal and we’d never realized that before.”

In fact, the debate about where the first hamburger was made has flared up several times before over the last few decades, said John E. Harmon, a professor of geography at Central Connecticut State University and author of the article “The Better Burger Battle.” Harmon said there are four towns with credible claims to the title of the birthplace of the hamburger — New Haven; Athens; Hamburg, N.Y.; and Seymour, Wis. — but the issue remains unsettled because no one has been able to provide incontrovertible documentation to back up their claims. Harmon said all of the claims seem equally plausible, and he doubts the “unanswered issues” will ever be resolved.

But Jeff Lassen said he is confident that New Haven is the true birthplace of the burger. His great-grandfather, Louis Lassen, first opened Louis’ Lunch — then a traditional sandwich cart — in 1895, Lassen said, and made the first hamburger from leftover beef scraps in the year 1900 when a rushed customer asked for a quick meal he could eat on the run. He said the burgers are still cooked in their original cast-iron ovens, and employees at the diner proudly show customers the date — 1898 — carved on the hulking black contraptions behind the counter.

Gould, on the other hand, contends that an Athenian named Fletcher Davis, or “Uncle Fletch,” made the world’s first hamburger sometime in the late 1800s, selling the sandwich for some extra money to employees at a local pottery business where he also worked. According to Gould, the sandwich Davis created — meat, pickles, and a mixture of mayonnaise and coarse mustard between two slices of homemade bread — was so popular that some wealthy members of the Athens community arranged to pay for Davis to run a booth at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Mo., where he sold was then called a “meat sandwich” to the public for the first time.

Both the Lassens and Gould claim to have documentation that proves their burger was the first. Lassen said his family has a certificate, signed and dated 1900, that shows that Louis Lassen did indeed make the world’s first hamburger, and thanks to a year 2000 initiative on the part of Rep. Rosa DeLauro — whose district includes New Haven — the Library of Congress supports his claim. Lassen said the actual document is locked away somewhere, and he has not seen it for some time.

But Gould said that Fletcher Davis’ descendants have proof that he was registered for a booth at the 1904 World’s Fair, although not under his own name, and that the evidence presented by Louis’ Lunch does not prove that New Haven’s burger came first. Although Gould said she does not have access to the documents from the fair herself, the Davis family will bring them to Athens in the next few weeks on a trip prompted by the controversy.

Andrew Horowitz ’03, the director of the New Haven Oral History project and a visiting lecturer at Yale, said New Haven needs to defend Louis’ Lunch against Athens’ claim to have produced the first hamburger in order to preserve its history. When he originally learned of the controversy — after seeing New Haven mayor John DeStefano defending Louis’ Lunch on FOX News — he said he thought the level of attention the story was getting was “silly.” But he said he soon realized that the origin of the hamburger and the diner itself are both important parts of New Haven’s identity.

“I know that the hamburger story seems funny, but I think what underlies it is really significant,” he said. “We should never give up on these stories we tell that tell us who we are. We should fight for them.”

Some of the customers at Louis’ Lunch said they had first come to the tiny restaurant in part because they had heard of its history and were curious, but several of the regulars said they keep coming back for the food itself. Michelle Varaiso, a student at Quinnipiac University, said she liked the big chunks of onion that are grilled into the top of the burger, and Aimee Casey, who attends Gateway University, said she loves Louis’ because the cooks make her sandwich medium rare.

Lauren Russell ’09 said she had not heard anything specific about the debate between New Haven and Texas, but that she automatically sided with Louis’ Lunch, where she said she felt the storied past made a “fantastic” burger even better.

“Whether or not it really is the first home of the burger is sort of superfluous,” she said. “The important thing is that you go there and feel like you’re a part of history.”

For his part, Lassen said that although the increased flow of what he estimates to be 50 percent more customers per day is somewhat overwhelming, he appreciates the publicity the story has brought to Louis’ Lunch because “it puts the spotlight on the burgers.”

Gould said the media attention that stemmed from the debate has also been good for tourism in Athens. Although Fletcher Davis and his family have not made hamburgers for decades, after the café he set up in Athens’ town center after the World’s Fair closed, she said she foresees increased attendance at the town’s hamburger festival. Gould said she would love for anyone who challenges Athens to attend and participate in the annual hamburger cook-off — but Lassen said such a challenge misses the point.

“They want to do a cook-off, but it has nothing to do with their claim,” he said. “This is coming from a place that I’m told isn’t even in business any longer, and here we are, still in business 112 years later. It’s easy to say something, but to pretty much stand by it and have the documentation from way back when is another thing.”

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