AKRON, Ohio (Aug. 3, 2015) – In just a few days, the National Hamburger Festival will return to Akron Aug. 8-9. But, often, the question remains as to why Akron gets to play host city to a festival celebrating one of America’s most iconic foods.
Put simply, it’s because the inventors of the hamburger hail from right here in Akron.
Or, should we say, “hamburg?”
Obviously, there’s a lot more to the story.
It all starts in 1885 with two brothers from Akron named Frank and Charles Menches. They were vendors at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York – a rather prestigious fair in which the festivalgoers donned white gloves, lace parasols and formal suits.
The festival – one of the largest of its kind – was held in Hamburg, an incredibly important and prosperous city at the time because it connected commercial shipping to the western frontier land.
According to John Menches, CEO of Menches Brothers restaurants in the Akron area and a third generation descendant of Charles Menches, it was important at these high-class festivities that the rich only indulged in sausage, widely considered the “king” of meats. At the time, beef was considered taboo and reserved only for the underclass.
Unfortunately, it was during the festival when things took a turn for the Menches brothers’ sausage sandwiches.
“It was my great grandfather who ran out of sausage. So, he went to the local butcher store in Hamburg to get more sausage. But, they didn’t have any more and they couldn’t slaughter any more because it was too hot on that August day,” said John.
As the story goes, Charles was forced to buy ground beef knowing very well that few would buy it if they knew what it was.
So, he took it back to his booth, rolled the ground beef into a patty, plopped it onto a hot-iron skillet and cooked it on an radiating cast-iron stove.
The result? Something that resembled a hockey puck.
“So, he found the old coffee pot and decided to start mixing together some items like coffee, brown sugar and other household ingredients with another patty of ground beef. Then, he took that patty and put it down on the black-iron skillet. It started cooking real nice,” John tells. “All of the sudden, a gentleman approached the booth and said, ‘Hey I’d like to try one of those because it’s smelling pretty good.’”
The brothers placed the patty between two pieces of bread and served it to the gentleman who took one bite and said, “This is good!! What do you call it?”
Frank looked up at the festival’s banner and replied, “It’s called a ‘hamburg.’”
After the passing of his mother in 1989, John and his siblings were going through some of her trinkets and keepsakes that she’d kept over the years. As it turned out, she had several items from her grandmother who also had some things saved from her mother-in-law, the wife of Charles Menches.
One important item: A recipe for the original “hamburg.”
“We thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ Inside the recipe was the coffee and brown sugar,” said John. “So we tested it out. And, truly it was a remarkable sandwich.”
The family used the recipe on the local fair circuit from 1992-1993. And, in 1994, they made the decision to open a brick and mortar location.
Today, the Menches family operates two Akron-area burger restaurants – one in Green and the other in Massillon – and has done so for the past 21 years.
“We still use the same recipe in our restaurants every day.”
It’s no secret that the history of this iconic food has been hotly contested over the years. Several cities claim its origins.
So, during its second year, National Hamburger Festival organizers held “The Hamburger Hearings” to a find out who really invented the hamburger. Four cities were each given the opportunity to state their case in front of a real judge and four jury members who comprised the “Burger Commission.” After all the arguments, the jury could not come to a decision. And, therefore, the judge decided to have a two-week online vote.
The winner – unfortunately for Akron – was Seymour, Wisconsin.
Yet still, the National Hamburger Festival carries on in Akron – where everyone knows the real story.
No doubt, Menches Brothers have been with the National Hamburger Festival since its inception 10 years ago.
At this year’s festival they’ll be serving up their traditional hamburg, as well as some other selections from their 50-burger restaurant menu. This will include the “King James” burger affectionately named after Akron’s own basketball celebrity Lebron James.
But if you expect to see them competing in the Burger Cook-Off, think again. The family decided to stop competing last year when they kept winning first- and second-place prizes each year. According to John, they want to make sure that other hamburger vendors throughout the area start getting some recognition.
“I can’t tell you if this is the best hamburg you’ve ever had because I wouldn’t know that. And, sure, I can tell you it’s very good. But, I can absolutely tell you that today our hamburg becomes the standard in which you judge all other,” he said.