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Friday, June 14, 2024

Meet the American who made us flip for hamburgers, Louis Lassen, Danish immigrant street-wagon cook

Louis Lunch is so old-school there is no history class. 

American hamburger history, at least, begins right here. The New Haven, Connecticut eatery is considered the birthplace of a national culinary treasure. 

The hamburger — specifically, the hamburger sandwich – was by many accounts first created and served by its namesake, Louis Lassen, an immigrant from Denmark. 

Lassen arrived in the United States around the age of 20 and began feeding New Haven factory workers from a food wagon in 1895. 

Louis Lassen

Louis Lassen, an immigrant from Denmark, invented the all-American hamburger sandwich at Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900. The cast-iron oven to the right is still used to broil burgers at Louis Lunch in 2023.  (Louis Lunch/Lassen Family)

Others claim ownership of the first hamburger. 

But only Lassen has the stamp of approval from the Library of Congress. 

“This New Haven sandwich shop is the home of the first hamburger and first steak sandwich in U.S. history,” the nation’s oldest federal institution announced in 2000. 

“Hamburgers are served only on white toast, with a choice of onion, tomato or cheese, but no condiments.” 

Flame-broiled hamburgers are still served the same exact way by a fourth generation of the Lassen family today at Louis Lunch, surrounded by the campus of Yale University

Louis Lunch

Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, began as a food wagon serving local factory workers in 1895. Owner Louis Lassen invented the hamburger at his lunch wagon in 1900. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

The little red brick building with black trim and retro-font white lettering looks like it might have been a firehouse in the days of horse-drawn wagons. 

Both parents hailed from the Syddanymark region of southern Denmark, on the border with Germany.

Louis Lunch burgers

Louis Lunch of New Haven, Connecticut, invented the hamburger sandwich in 1900. Hamburgers are still served the traditional way between slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread toast. The only topping options are cheese, onion and/or tomato. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

The family arrived in the United States in 1885, when Lassen was 19 or 20 years old. He married Sophia Kurtz, a native of Clermont County, Ohio. 

They had at least three children, according to various historical records.

The entire building was moved to its current location, at 261 Crown Street, in 1975. 

The hamburger is not an American invention. Ground beef patties came from Hamburg, Germany, where they were served as an entrée.

Jeff Lassen

Jeff Lassen is the fourth-generation owner of Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. His great-grandfather Louis Lassen founded the eatery in 1895 and invented the hamburger sandwich in 1900.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Hamburg is not far from the Danish border. It is likely the Lassens were familiar with hamburgers before arriving in the United States. 

Louis Lunch stove

Louis Lunch flame-broils its burgers in 125-year-old stand-up cast-iron ovens. Founder Louis Lassen cooked the very first hamburger sandwiches in the same exact ovens from Bridge, Beach & Co. of St. Louis in 1900.  (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

“You’ve heard of the Tartars? They rampaged through Europe, and one of the things they did was kill cattle,” the third-generation Danish-American burger maker told Stern, who shared the story with Fox News Digital. 

“But they didn’t have time to stop and cook it, so they put hunks of it under their saddles and as they rode north, the meat got ground up by all the galloping and seasoned by the horses’ sweat … and steak tartare was born! Finally, they stopped in Hamburg, Germany, long enough to cook it, and there you have a hamburger. But still without the bun.”

“With a meat grinder and a streak of that infamous Yankee ingenuity, Louis Lassen changed the course of American culinary history.” 

He disputes the fact that the Tartars raised and killed cattle. He said the Tartan raiders likely rampaged fueled by lamb or goat meat. 

He also disputes that Lassen invented the hamburger sandwich. He traces hamburger sandwiches to state fairs around the country in the 1890s. 

Burger expert George Motz

George Motz is the author “Hamburger America” and “The Great American Burger Book.” He disputes the Louis Lunch hamburger sandwich origin story, but is also one of the Connecticut eatery’s biggest fans. (George Motz)

A burger fan, meanwhile, sent him a clipping two years ago from the April 12, 1894, edition of the Shiner Gazette of Texas that cites “hamburger steak sandwiches every day in the week at Barny’s saloon, Moulton.”

“Americans are proud of their hamburger heritage,” said Motz. “At the very least, he [Lassen] helped popularize the hamburger.”

Hold the ketchup

Louis Lunch today is a living museum of American culinary history. 

“I describe it as going to burger church,” said Motz.

There’s no lettuce. No mustard. No ketchup. 

“Condiments were invented to hide the flavor of the beef in an era when meat went bad,” Louis Lunch proprieter Jeff Lassen, great-grandson of the founder, told Fox News Digital.

They may be the best hamburgers in America: fat, juicy, and flame-broiled in remarkable little 125-year-old cast-iron ovens manufactured by Bridge, Beach & Co. of St. Louis in 1898. 


Louis Lunch uses white bread from another Connecticut culinary icon: Pepperidge Farm, founded in the Nutmeg State by Margaret Rudkin in 1937. 

Burgers can be ordered with potato chips or potato salad. 

America’s favorite food

Louis Lassen died on March 20, 1935. He was 69 years old. 

He’s buried today at Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven beside his wife, Sophia. 

Louis Lassen

Louis Lassen, an immigrant from Denmark, is credited with inventing the hamburger sandwich at his eatery Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital; Lassen Family portrait)

Debate over the origins of the hamburger likely will linger forever. 

Americans consume more than 50 billion burgers each year, according to several industry estimates. 

That’s an average of nearly three burgers per week for every American man, woman and child. 

Louis Lassen and burger

Louis Lassen, founder of Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, is credited with inventing the hamburger in 1900 when he placed sizzling beef between two pieces of bread. Louis Lunch still serves its hamburgers and cheeseburgers between slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread toast. (Louis Lunch; Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital)

Louis Lunch may have enjoyed popular acclaim long before it achieved international recognition from the Library of Congress.

“The Whiffenpoof Song” is the traditional title tune performed by the Yale University Whiffenpoofs, proclaimed as the oldest collegiate a cappella ensemble in America. 

“They want you to eat it the way they served it in the 1800s. That’s what it’s all about.”

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