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Ollies, wimpeys, patties

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The many faces of the mighty burger

Ron Hosner, better known as Hoz, can do a pretty amazing job of recalling his first hamburger. He was six, maybe seven. It was at his mother’s restaurant in Benton Harbor, Michigan, just around the lake from Chicago. The name of the place, The Melody Grill, is as beguiling as the image, locked inside a 1950s time warp.

"It was a cheeseburger deluxe with olives, that’s what I remember," says Hoz, owner and captain of Hoz’s Pub as well as El Tipo’s next door. "When I was a kid all burgers came with mustard, ketchup, pickle and onion. If you had a deluxe, it came with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and onion. It was five cents extra for olives."

Back east, you order a burger with the distinctive touch of sliced green olives and it’s called an "ollie" (at Hoz’s it’s a Hoz burger). In England, olives or no, they’re called wimpeys for Popeye’s roly-poly pal who orders them by the dozen. Whatever they’re called and wherever they’re served, hands down, the hamburger is king of fast food – and, like it or not, a cultural emissary of the American way.

The mighty hamburger is nothing if not mythic, and that may be why its exact origins are tough to pin down. You also have to sort through whether the various sources are referring to hamburger, as in ground beef, or the full meal deal with bun.

Hamburg, New York claims to be home of the first hamburger, but as far as the historical records go, it seems that an eatery there only served beef, unground, on a bun when they ran out of pork. The most popular legend, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the most accurate one, claims that hamburger – as in, ground meat sans bun – first churned out of a meat grinder in Hamburg, Germany in the 1800s. It’s a tidy little tale, but attributing the provenance of hamburgers solely to Hamburg is as thin as hot mustard spread on a bun.

In The Complete Hamburger , Ronald J. McDonald (come on, who really wrote this book? RJM disavows any relationship to the mascot, or the famous chain’s founders, though I bet he wishes he was) traces the roots of hamburger back to the Mongols in Asia, who relished ground meat patties of a certain style.

Under the leadership of that famous warrior Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan, the Mongols conquered much of what is now Asia and Europe in the 13th century. Their nomadic lifestyle gave rise to distinctive portable tent-like homes called yurts, and equally distinctive portable food that could be carried on horseback and easily eaten. To tenderize lamb or horse meat patties, the Mongols wrapped them in skins – not buns – and placed them under their saddles as they rode. Then they ate them – raw.

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