Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, and Apple Pie: The History of some “American” Foods

You gotta hand it to us in the States, when it comes to food pride we really are tad screwed up. As Jennifer 8’s TED conference video below shows, a lot of foods that we advertise as Chinese are more often purely American. However, we are just as likely to find a food item that is popular in the U.S  and give it a “All-American” veneer when they often go back as far back as far as you want to look.

Want a few examples? OK, when you think of “American Food” what is the first items that come to mind? For most of us, this would be Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, and Apple Pie. Yet all three of these items are not even close to being American. In fact,  all three were being consumed before America in it present form even existed.

(Note: One should always keep in mind that the culinary arts are so fluid that exact dates for anything is difficult, as with each of these dishes, the original components are invented or discovered first, then combined to make the actual dish. The point when the original components are first combined could be far earlier than listed, but there is a vague point where both the main ingredients and the completed dishes and actually show up in the historical record. All of these points are more than far enough in the past to make American claims on their invention very shaky indeed, with the possible exception of Hot Dogs, but we will get there…)

Hamburgers: Lots of people think this came over from German-American Immigrants, but the Hamburger actually has its origins in Ancient Rome. Historians and Archaeologists have recently unearthed references to a lost Cookbook (known as the De Re Coquinaria or simply Apicius) attributed to a man named Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived sometime around the 1st Century C.E. during the reign of Tiberius. While the book itself is lost, later accounts by writers such as Seneca and Pilany include many of the recipes said to be contained in the original writings. One of the dishes is described as consisting of the following (taken from this site):

500g  minced meat
1     french roll, soaked in white wine
1/2   tsp freshly ground pepper
50ml  Liquamen (can be replaced by 1/2 tsp salt + a little white wine)
some stone-pine kernels and green peppercorns
a little Caroenum

Mix minced meat with the soaked french roll. Ground spices and mix into
the meat. Form small burgers and put pine kernels and peppercorns into
them.  Grill them together with Caroenum.

After cooking the meat/bread/nut/wine patty, it would be placed inside of a Roman-style bread roll to be eaten on the go, as these were evidently very popular products for street vendors. However, since this recipe has been lost for so long, it is unlikely the beginning point of the culinary line that ended with the US Burger. More likely that 300px-tatar-11point comes down from the Mongols, who needed a quick way to eat on the go, since they were known to stay in the saddle for days at a time without stopping. The answer for them was to take ground mixes of lamb and sometime oxen meat, form it into a flat patty, then shove this in between the saddle and the horse. When hunger hit, they would reach under the saddle and retrieve the still-raw meat, which by that time would have been tenderized by the friction between the saddle and the horse’s back and thanks to the patty shape, could be consumed with one hand. The Horde of Khubilai Khan brought this to Russia when they invaded Moscow. The Russians took the Mongol meat patty, slapped some spices and a raw egg on top, and turned it into Steak tartare. This dish gained great popularity in eastern and northern Europe, where it evolved into the cooked variants we know today.

Hot Dogs: the Hot Dog is a little trickier than the Hamburger, because the origins of this food depends on your definition of a “hot dog.” Typically, a hot dog would be considered a short sausage placed into a roll. While 200px-sausagebuncommon wisdom holds that the sausage known as a “frankfurter” came from Germany, then was first placed into a bun by German-American vendors at a few Worlds Fairs and at Coney Island, history actually shows that almost every country can claim a hand in the origins of this culinary item. Sausages are one of humanity’s oldest foods, with its first appearance in ancient Sumeria (present day Iraq) around 3000 B.C.E, but also showing up in China around 589 B.C.E. The Greek playwright Epicharmus (550-460 B.C.E.) wrote a comedy titled The Sausage, and even Homer mentions a type of blood sausage in The Odyssey. Wrapping a sausage with bread products started sometime in China during ancient times, giving rise to the Sausage Bun (the modern version of this does250px-american_pigs_in_blankets1 use a western-style sausage, but this is a more modern development), while a type of pigs-in-blanket dish known as Würstchen im Schlafrock (“Sausage in a nightgown”) was popular after the Common era, and though it predates later forms of sausage and bun, a specific time frame remains elusive. It seems unlikely that these would have been the first instances of wrapping a meat item with the popularity of a sausage into a bread product, but these are the oldest verifiable appearances in the historic record that I have been able to find.

Apple Pie: Apple pies or tarts go back all the way to the Medieval period, with one of the earliest recipes showing up in a cookbook by Samuel Pegge called The Forme of Cury in 1381. The recipe (in some form of old English) goes as such:

XXIII. For To Make Tartys in Applis

Tak gode Applys and gode Spryeis and Figys and reyfons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed co-lourd wyth Safron wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake well.

applepieThe “cofyn” (or “coffin”) refers to the pastry shell, which did not contain sugar (that shit was rare and expensive at the time) and was used only as a container for the cooked apple mixture. Once sugar became more common during the Tudor times (16th century) the pastry “coffin” became an edible part of the dish, and the modern Apple pie was born. A more extensive history (and the picture of pie that I swiped) can be found here.


~ by herodotuswept on December 31, 2008.

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