McDonalds Cheeseburger - © McDonald's

Contentious Conundrum: Who Invented The Cheeseburger?

You’d have thought that a culinary institution as huge and universal as the classic Cheeseburger would have a clear and accepted origin. But it turns out that more than one cook claimed to have invented the cheeseburger. And the controversy remains unresolved…

Nacho Cheeseburger - © 2023 Wendy'Wendy’s Nacho Double Cheeseburger: One end product of the
furious burger evolution of the 1990s through 2010’s…

In fact, a whole bunch of folks, from different parts of the country, have long asserted their right to the title.  it seems their descendants have agreed to disagree on the matter…

A little background…

According to Yahoo!Life Hamburger Facts:

  • The hamburger is named after the German port city of Hamburg, where it is thought that 19th century sailors brought back ground beef after trading with Russian provinces.
  • The first [modern] hamburger made its début in the United States in 1904 at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
  • Americans consume an average of 2.4 burgers per day according to the USDA, which translates to about 50 billion burgers per year. That just proves your average North American can’t say ‘no’ to seconds…
  • It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce 1 lb. / 245 g of grain-fed beef.
  • About 6.5 lb. / 3 kg of greenhouse gases are released to produce just one quarter-pounder burger.
  • Worldwide, McDonald’s sells about $50 million worth of burgers a day, which is about 750 burgers sold a second.
  • There’s a website that calculates the number of McDonald’s burgers sold in real time!

The Cheeseburger debate

As we said above… Not so much a debate as a simmering controversy. But there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: The vast majority of burgers – whether made at home or sourced from restaurants – are now topped with cheese.

The Economic Times reports: “A whopping 70 percent of people prefer American cheese on their cheeseburgers, surpassing cheddar ( 59 percent), swiss (40 percent), and mozzarella (39 percent). In the U.S., cheese reigns as the most popular burger topping, with 74 percent of respondents adding it to their burgers, as per a 2020 YouGov poll.”

So it will come as a surprise – if not a shock – to some readers that the ubiquitous slice of American (processed) cheese came relatively late to the pantheon of classic burger toppings…

Lionel Sternberger (1924)

Sixteen-year-old Lionel is credited with serving the first cheeseburger during a stint as a short order cook at his dad’s diner. The legend says, he did it as a casual experiment. The momentous event took place at the now-legendary Rite Spot, in Pasadena, California. Many were said to support his claim, but their evidence was largely undocumented.

O’Dell’s Restaurant

They didn’t invent it – or even claim to. But O’Dell’s, in Los Angeles, is accepted to have been the first eatery to list the cheeseburger on a menu, in 1928. The sandwich was smothered with chili and sold for a ‘premium’ 25 cents.

Kalin’s Restaurant

Kalin’s in Louisville, Kentucky, is agreed to be the first to put the cheeseburger on its permanent menu, in 1934. So confident was management in their claim to the fame that they declared Kalin’s ‘The Home Of The Cheeseburger!’.

Louis Ballast

Louis was the founder and owner of the Humpty Dumpty Drive-In in Denver, Colorado. He gave the cheeseburger prominence on his menu. And in 1935, he was granted a trademark for the name ‘cheeseburger’. However… The story goes that Ballast had to fight off a number of lawsuits over his ‘claim’.

Obviously, other folks who had built businesses on the name ‘cheeseburger’ were up in arms. Probably wished they had registered it! Especially Steak ‘n Shake, which applied for the trademark ‘sometime in the 1930s’, only to find it had been beaten to the punch by Ballast.

A&W – the Bacon Cheeseburger

For the record… An A&W franchise in Lansing, Michigan, is reliably credited with serving the first bacon cheeseburger in 1966. The Dubbs resisted for a while, but finally gave in to mounting customer demand. The bacon cheeseburger seems like a natural, looking back from today. But we already know that burger joints are intensely systematized, choreographed and timed to the second. It take months or even years to tool up for a new permanent menu item that’s not directly descended from existing ones – i.e.- using the same ingredients in a new presentation.

My take

Though a contentious matter – even erupting in court jousts – in days gone by, the debate surrounding the origin of the cheeseburger seems to it seems to have simmered down significantly. Claimants’ descendants have agreed to disagree on the matter…

I can’t help but express amazement at how long it took for the cheeseburger to become a ‘household name’. It was invented in 1924, but not recognised as a Fast Food ‘commodity’ until McDonald’s introduced it’s cheeseburger in 1948. You could be forgiven for asking, “What took Burgerdom so long?” And why did it take 42 years for someone to add bacon?

~ Maggie J.

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