A hamburger sandwich. Photo by Len Rizzi, public domain in the US. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:VulcanOfWalden.

It is now a truly international phenomenon: Millions of people throw down patties of ground beef on a grill, cook to order, and slide the meat onto buns to make a sandwich. And the popularity of the hamburger shows no sign of dying out any time soon. But what is the history of this favorite sandwich? Where did it come from?

The exact origin of what we know as the hamburger today – ground beef, typically shaped into a patty – is uncertain. What is known is that the burger is named after the city of Hamburg, Germany’s largest port city.  The food was often called “Hamburg steak.”

Apparently, ground beef has long, long, LONG been popular, since the idea of grinding or mincing beef goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians. The modern hamburger came, as the name suggests, from Germany, whose various regions had different variations on what became known as hamburger steak. The Germans are thought to have themselves gotten the idea from Russian steak tartare, which was in turn derived from Mongolian cured meat. Thank you, Genghis Khan?

The Oxford English Dictionary first defined the word “hamburg steak” in 1802. The spread of hamburgers into the United States, and the popularization of the name “hamberger,” is generally credited to German immigrants and sailors who came to New York from Hamburg on the Hamburg America Line.

For a long time, hamburgers, while widespread, were not especially popular. That changed with the founding of the company White Castle in 1921. Within a few years, hamburgers were sent into the mainstream. Other restaurants would follow: McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger in 1948, Burger King in 1954, Wendy’s in 1969. Hamburgers have since become a global phenomenon.