In Episode 302 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, home of (according to the United States Library of Congress), America’s first hamburger. In 1900, Louis Lassen operated a food cart in downtown New Haven. He served sliced broiled meats to hungry customers. But one day one of his regulars was in a hurry to get some food on-the-go, and a legend was born that became a global icon.
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RAY: I’m starving, Jeff. I didn’t eat breakfast today.
JEFF: It’s good we’re in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, then Ray. There are plenty of food options.
RAY: We’ve been to New Haven before. Yale University is in New Haven. We explored the Voynich Manuscript there.
RAY: We checked the story of that New Haven ghost ship way back in Episode 43.
JEFF: We did.
RAY: There’s a lot going on in New Haven.
JEFF: There is! We could spend a week here and still not cover everything legendary.
RAY: So true… which doesn’t change the fact that I’m still hungry.
JEFF: Right. That. There’s a great little place we simply must try. It’s right up here on Crown Street.
JEFF: Okay, this is the place!
RAY: Louis’s Lunch. Establish 1895….
JEFF: Ray this controversial shop not only gave rise to a New England Legend… but an American legend… we’re in New Haven, Connecticut, to witness the birth of the hamburger.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 302 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and thanks for joining your townie buddies Jeff and Ray on a road trip through weird and wonderful New England. Each episode we explore tales of odd history, ghosts, monsters, eccentrics, and all the other strangeness that make this region like no other. We’re glad you’re with us, too! If you’ve got a story you’d like to hear in a future episode, please email us through our Web site anytime.
JEFF: We’re going to feed Ray the nation’s first hamburger right after this quick word from this sponsor.
RAY: Louis’s Lunch is located inside a small, one-story brick building here on Crown Street. There are red shutter doors on the windows that lock up when the restaurant is closed. And it’s surrounded by a public parking lot. It’s not a big restaurant at all.
JEFF: Nope, it’s tiny. But it packs a lot of history inside. This building has been around a long time, though this wasn’t the original location. The building was moved here in the 1970s. Should we head in?
[DOOR OPENS / BELL DINGS]
RAY: Mmmmmm. This place smells great! It looks almost like an old bar inside. Except behind the wooden bar the cooks are preparing food. There’s some wooden benches for seating around the perimeter, and tons of names carved into the wood. This place has character. No doubt.
JEFF: it does.
RAY: So the hamburger was invented in New Haven, Connecticut?!
JEFF: It depends who you believe. This story is not without its controversy. But in this case, our source is going to be the United States Library of Congress and the folks here at Louis’s Lunch have no intention of arguing with them.
RAY: I always thought it came from Hamburg, Germany?
JEFF: Hamburg was known for its quality cattle and meats. Centuries ago in Russia, folks considered it a delicacy to eat seasoned ground meat raw. What the French call steak tartar. German sailors from the port town of Hamburg brought the dish home because they loved it so much. The Germans used their own blended, diced raw meats to make it, and the sailors named the dish after their city. Hamburger. BUT… raw ground meat isn’t what anyone thinks of when they think of a hamburger today.
RAY: Got it. Yeah, I think I’d pass on raw ground beef.
JEFF: Lots of other people would too. And to be fair, there are other restaurants and cities who lay claim to the world’s first hamburger as we know it… but Louis’s Lunch in New Haven has the backing of the Library of Congress. To find out how this tiny restaurant and its food offering became an icon, let’s head back to the year 1900.
[HORSE AND WAGON TROTTING]
RAY: It’s May of 1900. President William McKInley is in the White House. McKinley helped lead America to victory in the Spanish American War about a year and a half ago, and he’s put some tariffs in place that have proved a boon to American industry. The United States is making stuff. Workers are busy, and in a hurry.
JEFF: Here in New Haven, 34 year old Louis Lassen is hard at work preparing hot sliced beef in his food wagon. Louis was born in Ballum Parish, which was Denmark the year before his birth, but became a German territory after a treaty was signed. So depending who or when you ask him, he was born in Denmark or Germany. Both are kind of correct. Anyway, he learned to be a blacksmith, but he was also a preacher. He came to the United States, married a girl in New York, and the couple made their way to New Haven where Louis began selling butter and eggs from a wooden cart that he stored in the backyard of their Elliot Street home. In 1895, he started adding lunch items. His wagon expanded to include broilers, and he soon started selling serving sliced steak.
RAY: Business is good, too! People are busy, Louis’s food is tasty, and folks can get it fast. Louis uses vertical broilers to cook his meats. The grease and fat drips to the bottom, and customers get delicious, evenly cooked meat because the heat comes from both sides at once.
JEFF: It’s good stuff for sure. Louis also saves the trimming from his sliced beef. He chops it up into its own kind of patty. It’s another item he can sell.
[MUMBLING CROWD NOISE FADES IN]
RAY: The lunch crowd is picking up.
JEFF: It is. It’s great to see a local vendor like this doing well… Louis has his regulars and he’s got peop…
CUSTOMER: Louis! I’m in a rush! Slap a meatpuck between two planks and step on it!
JEFF: I guess this guy’s in a hurry to get back to work!
RAY: Louis is placing two slices of bread in the toaster. He’s gathering up one of his cooked meat trimming patties… okay, now he’s setting the patty on the toast… and the customer is on his way munching on his lunch.
CUSTOMER: Thanks, Louis!
JEFF: Other customers watch the man dash off with his sandwich.
RAY: I gotta admit, it looks pretty good.
JEFF: The other patrons want to order the same thing. And they’re NOT in a rush. It just looks good.
RAY: And just like that, Louis’s hamburger sandwich is born.
JEFF: As the weeks go by, Louis finds himself selling less sliced steak and more of these hamburger sandwiches. It’s portable. It’s delicious. Pretty soon, Louis adds some options. A slice of tomato, a slice of onion. Or both. But served on toasted bread. Always on toasted bread.
RAY: The hamburgers are cooked medium-rare. The vertical broilers he bought in 1898 sear the outside of the burger and cook it just enough to make the inside pink. After making a few hundred of these things, he’s got the timing and recipe down.
JEFF: A few hundred sales turns into a few thousand over the years. Louis’s lunch wagon becomes a New Haven icon.
RAY: It’s 1904. And we’re going to hop on the train here in New Haven.
[STEAM TRAIN WHISTLE, CHUGGING AWAY]
RAY: And ride it all the way to St. Louis, Missouri. Site of the 1904 World’s Fair.
[CROWDS OF PEOPLE BUILDING]
RAY: There are people here from all over the world. And there are vendors of every kind. One of those vendors is a man named Fletcher Davis who is selling meat patties on a bread bun as fast as he can make them. He says he’s been selling his beef sandwiches for over 15 years now.
JEFF: Thanks to this huge World fair, the world just got a taste of this culinary masterpiece. Ray, you know how you go to a restaurant sometimes and get a dish that’s soooooo good. And you wish you could get the secret recipe and make it at home?
RAY: Sure! All the time.
JEFF: Here’s the thing about the hamburger. The recipe ain’t exactly a secret.
RAY: I guess it isn’t.
JEFF: Ground meat. Salt and pepper, or whatever other spices you’re into. Add heat, top it with what you want, and throw it between some bread.
RAY: Yup. That’s the recipe. I guess you only have to watch a hamburger made one time and taste it to figure out how to do it yourself.
JEFF: Aspiring cooks and entrepreneurs from all over are watching Fletcher Davis’s hamburgers fly out of his food stall and are thinking the same thing. Anyway… we should get back to New Haven.
RAY: Back in New Haven, Louis’s hamburger sandwich is as popular as ever. Folks line up at lunchtime.
JEFF: After 17 years of peddling his hamburger sandwiches from a wagon, it’s time to expand. Louis moves into a small brick building on Crown Street that used to be a tannery, and now his vertical broilers find a permanent home. And customers are still lining up.
RAY: The recipe changes slightly as ground meat replaces sliced trimmings. Louis blends five different kinds of meats to make his perfect patty. And the customers keep coming.
JEFF: Meanwhile, across the nation and around the world more burger restaurants are popping up all over. It’s 1921. In Wichita, Kansas, a cook named Walter Anderson and his business partner Billy Ingram open their first restaurant making their burger patties a little differently. They end up calling their restaurant… White Castle.
RAY: As years go by and the restaurant continues to be successful, Louis brings his kids into the family business. The faces may change, but the recipe and cooking technique does not.
JEFF: Louis Lassen passes away March 20, 1935. He was 69 years old. His son had been running the business for years already. Though Louis is gone, his burgers and legacy live on. And that brings us back to today.
[DINING CROWD NOISES IN THE BACK]
JEFF: So, there have been a few changes over the decades.
RAY: I imagine there would be.
JEFF: But only a few. The burgers are still cooked in those same vertical broilers built in 1898. They’ve used the same Savory Radiant Gas Toaster since 1929 that toasts Pepperidge Farm breads baked just down the road in Norwalk, Connecticut. The burgers are still cooked medium-rare. But in the 1960s, New Haven was being developed at a fast rate. The space where Louis’s Lunch was located was marked to become a high-rise building. And just when it looked like there was nothing that could be done, just when it seemed Louis’s Lunch was going to be torn down and lost forever… the community pitched in, and the building was lifted off its foundation, and moved four blocks up Crown Street to where it sits today.
RAY: That’s incredible. I read customers donated money to help make it happen and preserve this New Haven landmark.
JEFF: They did. Some even donated bricks to get the building fixed up in its new home. So back to the menu changes. In the 1950s, Ken Lassen added cheese as an option. So today your choices for your burger are cheese, sliced onion, and sliced tomato, or any combination of the three.
RAY: That sounds perfect! Throw on some lettuce, a pickle, some ketchup, maybe some mayo…
JEFF: Woah, woah, woah… Ray. Hold on.
JEFF: No condiments are allowed here.
JEFF: Nope. Read that sign on the wall right there.
RAY: It says: This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way, or you don’t get the damn thing.
JEFF: I guess they mean it about no condiments.
RAY: I see another sign that shows a ketchup bottle with a circle and line through it. That same sign is on the back of some of the t-shirts the staff are wearing.
JEFF: The folks here figure if you’ve got great quality meats you don’t disguise the flavor with condiments.
RAY: That makes sense.
JEFF: With your burger, they also serve potato salad, chips, homemade pie, and soft drinks. And that’s it.
RAY: Simple. But really, what more could you want?
JEFF: In the year 2000, U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro pushed for legislation to officially recognize Louis Lassen as the creator of the hamburger. The Library of Congress recorded that Lassen had served America’s first hamburger, and then the fighting started.
RAY: What do you mean?
JEFF: As soon as you make a claim like that people are going to challenge you.
RAY: Right. Fletcher Davis from St. Louis said he’d been making these types of sandwiches since the late 1880s.
JEFF: And some will die on the hill even today arguing that Louis Lassen has never made a hamburger in his entire life!
RAY: Huh? How’s that?
JEFF: Some insist a hamburger has to be served on a bun or roll. NOT sliced toast.
RAY: Really? Come onnnnn.
JEFF: People will argue over anything. Louis’s Lunch doesn’t make too much of a fuss about claiming they were the first. I think they figure let folks argue over whatever they want, they’ll continue a family business and tradition that’s become a legendary lunch in New Haven.
RAY: Annnnnnd now I’m hungrier than ever. (TO STAFF) Hey! Slap a meatpuck between to planks and step on it!
JEFF: And that brings us to After the Legend. Think of this as your dessert after the meal.
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We’d like to thank Marv Anderson for lending his voice acting talent this week. Thank you to our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.