March 28 was National Hamburger Day.
Let the rejoicing begin.
We who work in the Local and Family History Department are quite fond of our hamburgers (so much so that they are often times a matter of debate and salivation behind the desk). Thus, it only stands to reason that on this glorious holiday we should spend a little time researching Paducah’s history with this beacon of foods.
Hamburger steaks have likely been around as long as people figured out how to mince beef. The emergence of the hamburger steak between two slices of bread, however, looks to be an invention of the late 19th or early 20th century. Several lay claim to the creation of the sandwich from a county fair in Wisconsin to a street vendor in Texas to a German cook in New York who was trying to recreate a popular sailors’ lunch from his homeland. Though we may not be able to figure out exactly who invented the hamburger as we know it today, all the early claims fall between the years of 1895 and 1904.
There are a few references to hamburger steaks in editions of The Paducah Sun from the late 1800’s, but the earliest mention of a proprietor serving something just called “a hamburger” was in 1902. Sam Gott, a saloon owner and restaurateur, owned a few businesses in Paducah yet his flagship establishment was located on North Fourth Street. He advertised his lunch specials daily in The Sun, and his early fare included Pork & Turnips, Rabbit, Veal, Barbecued Spring Lamb, and Turtle Soup. Long about 1902, and several times a week thereafter Mr. Gott started advertising “the best lunch the market affords…go there tonight for a nice hamburger.” As there was no description or recipe, it’s unclear as to whether this meal was the hamburger sandwich as we think of it, though not once did Sam Gott’s advertising ever use the word steak.
Following Mr. Gott’s plate lunch specials in 1902, Paducah seemed to burgeon with street food vendors for the next few years. “Hamburgers and Hot Tamales? Go to Shorty’s on 117 S. Third.” Lem Parker had his hamburger stand on the corner of Broadway and Jefferson at Fourth Street. There were stands all over the city it seems. Next to Weille’s Department Store sat one such stand. It was a prime and well-trafficked area of Broadway, yet that small stand was the victim of an inexplicable Christmas-time crime on December 23, 1904. According to The Sun, at 7:00 that evening, the “hamburger man” was in his small house cooking up his wares when a “drunken farmer” stopped, pulled a large canon cracker from his pants pocket, lit the fuse with his cigar, and threw it under the stand. The hamburger man was unhurt and his stand only suffered a little broken glass. The drunken farmer got away.
Hamburger stands were so popular in this time that the Chief of Police James Collins ordered the vendors to take their food off the streets at night, as the scent of so many hamburgers was driving people indoors while the “plaintive cries of ‘red hot’ almost made many candidates for the asylum.”
While none of the of these stands advertised hamburger steaks, there is still no mention of bread, so it is unclear to this point whether Paducah had yet discovered the joys of the real hamburger. It wasn’t until 1906 that The Paducah Sun first used the phrase hamburger sandwich. Unfortunately the hamburger sandwich wasn’t celebrated in the article. In fact, it was listed as a cause of a shooting. On July 23, 1906, John Mix got into a scuffle with Cicero Anderson at Graham’s Saloon on 9th and Kentucky. Anderson ended up fatally shooting Mix in the abdomen. Said an eyewitness, “The shooting is the result of a quarrel over a pint of whiskey and half a hamburger sandwich.”
A shooting at a saloon.
What a horrible place to stake our hamburger heritage!
However, the mere mention of a “hamburger sandwich” in a police blotter does not establish a precedent. By 1906 we may have had bread included with our hamburgers, but where are the toppings? True hamburgers—note-worthy, historically relevant burgers—must have toppings as well. For that we flash forward to February 1909 and a much more pleasing anecdote again published in the Paducah Sun.
A farmer of meager means approached Lem Parker’s hamburger stand on Fourth and Jefferson. Seeing that hamburgers were only a nickel, he ordered one. Lem, the proprietor, asked the farmer if he wanted onions or pickles. Not knowing any better or thinking he was being misled by a city boy, the farmer said, “Neither. I want a meat hamburger.” Lem then proceeded to construct the sandwich for the naïve farmer—onions, pickles, and meat between slices of bread. In the words of The Sun, “The farmer devoured it with relish.”
That was that farmer’s introduction to the hamburger, and, as far as we know, Paducah’s introduction as well. Our history with the hamburger may be a little sketchy, falling somewhere between 1902 and 1909, but what we do know for absolute sure is that we have a lot of fine burgers in this town now. Just ask us in Local and Family History. We’ve tried them all.
For more about “Food, Glorious Food” or inane, arbitrary holidays, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.