Just which investigative organization’s jurisdiction the debate falls under is unclear, but it is high time somebody gets on the ball and once and for all sets this culinary issue to rest. The public has the right to know just who gave this country one of its greatest, most time-honored backyard-cookout and fast-food-chain traditions.
Who, we ask, should be rightfully credited as the originator of the hamburger? Can we please finally solve this twisted mystery and get on with the striking of a medal to show our appreciation?
For decades now we’ve had several claimants to the honor, each with a sizable and energetic group of chamber of commerce and historical-society backers pleading their respective case. The citizens of New Haven, Conn., for instance, are certain that the first full-meal deal was served at Louis Lassen’s café back in 1900. Bah humbug, say the historians in Seymour, Wis., who say their very own Charlie Nagreen was selling his burgers to appreciative local customers as early as 1885. That same year, some argue, brothers Frank and Charles Menches were peddling burgers at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y. And in Tulsa, Okla., they insist that Oscar Weber Bilby cooked the first hamburgers for his friends and family, who were attending a Fourth of July celebration on his farm.
Then, there’s Fletcher Davis, who called picturesque little Athens, Texas (75 miles southeast of Dallas), home. For my money, he’s the leader in the clubhouse. Here’s why:
To do proper detective work on the matter, one must first understand the definition of a true, all-American hamburger: ground-beef patty, mustard and/or mayonnaise, tomato, lettuce, pickles and onions served between two halves of a warm bun and generally accompanied by an ample side order of fries and ketchup. Simple enough that your kid can recite it, right?
History tells us that everyone but Fletcher Davis served up steak sandwiches; a piece of meat slapped between a couple of slices of plain bread. I know I’ll get letters, but folks, a hamburger that ain’t.
Davis not only used the above-mentioned recipe, but his achievement is the best documented of the cases. As the story goes, so impressed were Athens visitors to Davis’ town-square lunch counter, they chipped in to fund his trip to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. There, he set up a stand near the midway and sold his burgers. Even a reporter from the New York Tribune took note of the gourmet discovery and questioned Davis extensively about his burgers. He also asked for details about the accompanying fries. Not used to being interviewed, Uncle Fletch, as folks back home knew him, explained that he’d borrowed the fried-potato recipe from an old friend who lived in Paris. It never occurred to him to differentiate Paris, Texas, from Paris, France. Thus in his article, the reporter, unfamiliar with Texas geography, referred to the side dish he’d sampled as “French fried potatoes.”
According to author and historian Frank X. Tolbert, even the experts at Hamburger University, McDonald’s corporate training center in Oak Brook, Ill., embrace Davis as the likely inventor of the burger they now sell the world over. Before knowing Davis by name, its researchers concluded that “an anonymous food vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was the first to introduce the sandwich to the public,” Tolbert wrote. That vendor, as we know, was none other than Fletcher Davis. And, rest assured, these folks don’t take their fact-finding lightly. As late McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc said, “We take the hamburger business more seriously than anyone else.”
And if that’s not official enough for you, be aware that in 2006 the Texas Legislature passed a resolution recognizing Davis as the originator of the hamburger. In Athens, there’s a historical plaque that boasts of the achievement. In the past, they’ve celebrated the milestone with Uncle Fletch’s Burger Cook-Off during the city’s annual Fall Festival. Texas legends like Tolbert and former Dallas Cowboys owner and millionaire Clint Murchison Jr. were convinced enough to tell Davis’ story in their own writings.
So, barring indisputable evidence to the contrary, Uncle Fletch, former potter turned cook, is our man. And, despite what calorie counters might tell you, the world is ever better for his history-making contribution.