The history of the hamburger is a murky one. No one really knows who invented them or what their connection is to the eponymous German city, although there are many stories. What is clear is that hamburgers (defined as a patty of minced beef encased in a bread roll or bun) were developed in the USA in the late 19th or early 20th century. Long before anyone thought of slapping it into a roll, the meat patty had acquired the name of Hamburg steak and, as early as 1901, recipes were appearing in the Australian press.
Inevitably, the American invention appeared in Australia. The earliest references I can find in the press date from the mid-1930s, but it’s likely that the burger was around for a while before anyone thought to write about it. It seems that the hamburger made its Australian debut in Sydney, where American glitz had more appeal than in conservative Melbourne. In a 1935 column titled “Around Bondi”, the Katoomba Daily suggested that the “Southern Capital” was lagging behind:
Yes, I have been in to Hamburger Joe’s and California Hank’s — but, a hamburger is only a decorated rissole after all! Hot-dog shops and malted-milk bars are as numerous in Sydney just now as flies are in the summer-time. But it is the former I have -in mind. Per medium of electric cooking appliances, these shops turn out hot-dogs; hamburgers, Spanish omelettes, egg rolls, and other favoured tit-bits of the great U.S.A. public. The passer-by is attracted by the “appetising” odour of minced meat, herbs and onions, and watches with interest the cooking and manufacture of these dainty morsels. So far the idea has not spread to Melbourne — if I am to believe a visitor from .the Southern Capital. “What kind of new tangled stunt is this?” he asked of me, as I gazed through a window this morning. I assured him that Melbourne would learn of them sooner — or later!
It seems that Hamburger Joe’s, at Bondi Beach, was popular with the social set. And, in 1935, Smith’s Weekly published a satirical account that had the Governor, Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven, “slumming it” by fighting for counter room at the caravan.
Melbourne wasn’t far behind, though. In 1936, the social notes in the Williamstown Chronicle, in addition to reporting on the Melbourne Mouth Organ Band Championships, advised readers that:
Mrs Hayward supplies a much wanted refreshment and supper house in Ferguson street, opp. picture theatre. The innovation introduces “The Hamburger.” It is worth while a trial.
By the end of the decade, the hamburger was established as a fast food, although not to everyone’s liking. In 1938, Smith’s Weekly was lamenting that “Sydney eats American – American hamburgers, American three-decker toasted sandwiches, American gum, American hot-dogs”. In 1939, Melbourne’s oldest hamburger shop, Andrew’s Hamburgers in South Melbourne, began trading – and it continues today, operated by the nephew of the founder.
Visiting American troops during World War II cemented the popularity of the hamburger in this country and sometime in the 1940s we Australianised it by adding a slice of beetroot. Some say it was a joke at the expense of the visiting Yanks but that story is likely apocryphal. By the 1960s, the “hamburger with the lot” was a common offering containing, in addition to the beef patty: fried onion, tomato, lettuce, an egg, a bacon rasher, tomato sauce and, perhaps, a pineapple ring. Australia got what claimed to be its first drive-in burger joint when rock promoter Lee Gordon opened the Big Boy Drive-thru in Parramatta Road, Taverners Hill in 1960.
Since the early 1970s, the Aussie hamburger has faced competition from the bland offerings of the big American chains. However, in the early 2000s, a resurgence began. The Australian chain Grill’d was founded in 2004 and pretty soon everyone, including the odd high-end restaurant, was doing burgers. Now you can choose between Ze Pickle (Queensland and NSW), Betty’s Burgers, Carl’s Jnr and a whole range of local offerings such as Canberra’s famous Brodburger. Heading for its Australian centenary, the hamburger isn’t going away anytime soon.