First, a confession. As a young child, I was obsessed with meat grinders. My mother made delicious cold pork sandwiches. I was fascinated by the machine she clamped onto the counter top and the aroma and texture of the meat as it was transformed from large chunks to a sort of spreadable delight. She mixed it with finely chopped celery and mayonnaise. So tasty.
Most of all though, I was fascinated by the screw-shaped mechanism that consistently moved meat forward as one turned the handle. I’d ask to be allowed to grind some meat and watched as I turned the handle in slow-motion to observe each chunk travel forward, backward, forward, backward.
My fascination stopped abruptly one day. A guest arrived to visit with my mom and I rushed to show her my latest creative accomplishment. I built all sorts of things with boxes and construction paper. This time, I had built a life-size meat grinder. As I showed it to our guest and saw her puzzled countenance, I realized (even though I could not have been any older than about 8), “What sort of child takes the time to build a cardboard meat grinder?” End of fascination.
You must admit that it is a clever device, combining perpetual motion and direction with a single movement. Someone had to really think about this. It could have been far more complicated. But why on earth did we feel the need to grind meat in the first place?
Legend (not altogether proven to be so) has it that the Mongols sandwiched raw beef between their horse and saddle so that by the time they dismounted the meat would be tender enough to eat as is. Questionable practice if you ask me, but I can see how it might work rather well. Some actually believe this is the precursor to steak tartar and it could be the precursor to the modern-day grill tradition: “Honey, I am off to conquer new territory, how many steaks should I set under the saddle for dinner?”
What is more certain is that the first tenderized (almost ground) meat patty makes its appearance in the port city of Hamburg, Germany and is called “Hamburg steak.” History does not recall whether they used the Mongol tenderizing technique. The buns make their appearance later, possibly right here in America. But let us extend our sojourn on German land for a few moments, since this is indeed the meat grinder‘s homeland. Suddenly I wonder: What came first? The meat grinder or ground meat?
Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig, Karl Drais for short, was born in Germany in 1785. Drais was an inventor. Amongst is most notable inventions, the precursor to the two-wheel bicycle, a stenotype machine, a typewriter and a railroad handcart deserve mention, as does the meat grinder. In fact, the meat grinder’s basic operation and design have hardly changed since then. Incidentally, this Saturday is Drais’ birthday.
Essentially, the meat grinder‘s mechanism forces meat through sharpened blades. It would seem we could accomplish this simply by pushing the meat through a grid of blades, over and over. Perhaps this was an initial trial for Drais. But his other inventions provide a clue as to his thought process: He understood the dynamics of the turning mechanism and motion.
However, Drais early bicycle lacked an important feature. It did not have pedals. It was operated by foot. So while our friend Drais cleverly adapted a horizontal screw conveyor to the task of grinding meat, it did not occur to him to use a conveyor belt (chain) system to propel his bicycle. Could the meat grinder mechanism have been a fluke? Also, his typewriter featured only 25 keys. Are you thinking what I am thinking? Could the inventor of the meat grinder have been the sort of person who begins a project and quits before completion? Could the meat grinder be an incomplete version of a greater plan? Could it be an accident? We will never know.
As for the ground meat we shape into patties and serve between two buns, its story leads to questions as well. No less than three different establishments claim to have served the first hamburger.
1885, Hamburg Fair, Hamburg, New York: The Menches Brothers claim to have served the first hamburger at this fair when they ran out of sausage and had to get creative. The same year, Charles Nagreen (a.k.a. “Hamburger Charlie”), a fifteen-year-old boy who sold meatballs at the Summer Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin, decided he needed a new approach when he realized his meatballs were not selling very well. He smashed the meatballs between slices of bread and voilà! Finally, 1900, Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, Connecticut. The owner of the establishment claims he spontaneously sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread when a man ran in requesting a meal he could eat on the run.