Letter: New Haven isn’t the home of the hamburger, but Yale is the inventor of ‘hot dog’

Louis’ Lunch is a historic place and has been around since 1900 (or 1895, as a lunch wagon), but it did not serve the first “hamburger” (as asserted in the article “Eating at Yale for under $8: Louis’ Lunch,” Jan. 16).

“Hamburg steak” — without the bun — was widely cited in the 1870s. In 1883, the New York Sun reported: “Those flat, brown meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg steaks; the people call them ‘Hamburgers.’ ” It can never be known who put these “hamburgers” between two slices of bread, but we can be certain that Louis’ Lunch didn’t do it first in 1900. “Hamburger steak sandwiches” were cited in Reno, Nev., in 1893, and in both Chicago and Los Angeles in 1894. A “Hamburg sandwich” was advertised in Bismarck, N.D., in 1898. The “hamburger” was well known nationally before Louis’ Lunch ever opened.

Louis’ Lunch is a historic place, and, most importantly, many people think that it serves great-tasting hamburgers today. It did not serve the very first “hamburger,” but there’s no shame in that.

In 2007, a bill was introduced into the Texas legislature saying tiny Athens, Texas, served the first “hamburger” and popularized the food at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. I wrote to committee chairmen in the Texas House and Senate and told them I am a food historian who would like to be scheduled to speak on the bill, but no one replied. The Texas Senate even waived public notice to unanimously approve the “Original Home of the Hamburger” bill. The Texas-Connecticut hamburger battle was reported in many places, including this paper. I wish legislators had better things to do.

New Haven and Yale can, however, lay better claim to the term “hot dog.”

“Frankfurter” or “Frankfurt sausage” were popular names in the 19th century for this food item, often joked to contain suspicious ingredients, including dog meat. The lunch wagon was an innovation of the early 1890s, and in the fall of 1894 the lunch wagon arrived at Yale. The Yale Record called it a “dog wagon” (a joke on the wagons that rounded up strays) and, by 1895, the term “hot dog” appeared in print. Lunch wagons sprung up at many other colleges, such as Harvard, Cornell and Berkeley, but a thorough check of their humor magazines shows Yale used the term “hot dog” first.

Billy Adams’ “Yale Kennel Club” lunch wagon on Elm Street achieved great fame in those early years, being mentioned frequently in the Yale Record and described at length in the New York Sun in 1899. Although, through newly digitized material, I have subsequently found an 1893 citation for “hot dog” from a Tennessee newspaper, I believe that Yalies popularized the term “hot dog” and that due credit should be given to Yale students.

My work on the origin of the term “hot dog” has been described on Wikipedia and on the promotional materials of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, but the actual “hot dog” evidence from the 1890s has still never been reprinted in any Yale publication.

The hamburger and the hot dog are important American foods and their histories should be properly told, through facts and not myths.

Now, about the Yale cocktail…

Barry Popik

Austin, Texas

Jan. 22

The writer is a consulting editor for the Oxford Companion to Food and Drink in America.

Comments