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How did burgers become a cookout standard? 'Hamburger Dreams' author has the answer

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Memorial Day, this unofficial start to summer, may also be the start of grilling season. By the time it's over, Americans will have spent more than $1.5 billion on meat this year - hot dogs, brats and hamburgers. But how exactly did the burger become a cookout standard?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Well, for the answer, we turn to Chris Carosa. He literally wrote the book on burgers. And in "Hamburger Dreams," he traces the first hamburger to 1885 and two brothers, Frank and Charles Menches.

CHRIS CAROSA: They started this business of selling food at fairs - county fairs, regional fairs. And they had to differentiate themselves from everyone else, so they specialized in pork sausage sandwiches.

FADEL: Until they couldn't get pork.

CAROSA: Frank went to the butcher to buy 10 pounds of pork. And the butcher says, I'm not going to slaughter a whole pig for you just for 10 pounds because I won't be able to sell the rest of it.

MARTÍNEZ: The butcher sold them ground beef instead, and the Menches brothers' improvised sandwiches were a big hit at the fair in Hamburg, N.Y.

CAROSA: Somebody comes up and asks, hey, what do you call this thing? Well, the short name for the Erie County Fair is the Hamburg Fair. So Frank looked up at the sign and said, it's a Hamburg sandwich.

FADEL: The Hamburg sandwich grew more and more popular throughout the late 1800s.

CAROSA: People were spending leisure time going to fairs, going to games, horse races, outdoor activities, and they needed a way to quickly eat something. So these types of foods were invented to address that need.

FADEL: But Carosa says by the 1920s, burgers were thought of as strictly for the masses.

MARTÍNEZ: So that called for a little creativity to cover up just who was eating these burgers.

CAROSA: So there are newspaper articles describing rich people driving fancy cars, calling up little boys from the neighborhood, handing them money, and the boys would run into the White Castle restaurant, get a bag of hamburgers, run back and give it to the people in the car. The people in the car were too embarrassed to go and buy the hamburgers themselves.

MARTÍNEZ: Bridging the wealth gap through a tasty burger.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.