How Did Hamburger Buns Get Their Seeds?

04/10/2015 07:33 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015
Shutterstock / Elena Shashkina

Is there any food as ubiquitous, yet as invisible, as the hamburger bun? There's no glamour there. Billions of dollars worth of them are sold every year, yet hardly anyone gives them a second thought.

They ought to. Hamburger buns, humble as they may seem, have a fascinating history.

The early history of the hamburger is notoriously murky. At least five parties claim to have invented the hamburger as we know it today. And because hamburgers have always been a food of the masses, casual to the extreme, their history has never been documented well enough to say definitively whose claim is the most rightful.

Bread vs. Buns

However, several of the contenders, including the famed Louis Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, can demonstrate only that they were among the first to serve grilled ground beef patties on sliced bread -- not buns. And food writer Josh Ozersky, in his definitive 2008 book The Hamburger: A History, argues that hamburgers are defined, in no small part, by their buns.

"There is no doubt," Ozersky writes. "On any kind of semantic or platonic level, no bun = no burger."

"To admit ground beef on toast as a hamburger is to make the idea of a 'hamburger' so loose, so abstract, so semiotically promiscuous as to have no meaning," he continues.

According to popular historian Michael Wallis, the first person to put a hamburger patty on a bun was a home cook from Oklahoma named Oscar Weber Billy. When Wallis interviewed Billy's descendants for a terrific 1995 article in Oklahoma Today, they claimed that in 1891, Grandpa Billy grilled up some burger patties and put them on his wife's "homemade yeast buns -- the best buns in all the world, made from her own secret recipe." They were a hit, and Oscar Weber Billy apparently served his hamburgers to large crowds of neighbors every Fourth of July thereafter.

Ozersky dismisses the Billy claim for two reasons. He said the Billy family didn't photograph that first hamburger, so its age can't be verified. And even if Oscar Weber Billy did serve his hamburger on a bun in 1891, he did so "in the vacuum of obscurity." Ozersky instead credits Walter Anderson, the cook behind White Castle, with the invention of the hamburger bun. Anderson started serving hamburgers on buns at his Wichita, Kansas, restaurant sometime around 1915.

But 1915 seems too late for the invention of the hamburger bun: There are brief mentions of hamburger buns in newspaper articles from 1908 and 1911. And many insist that burgers -- on buns -- were served at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Still, it seems fair to say that, at the very least, White Castle played a huge role -- or roll -- in popularizing the hamburger bun as we know it today.

Open Sesame

There's no evidence, though, that either Oscar Weber Billy or Walter Anderson thought to put sesame seeds on their hamburger buns. But figuring out who invented a sesame-seed bun is, if anything, even more difficult than figuring out who invented its seedless cousin.

The first reference to a hamburger on a sesame-seed bun that I could find was a 1955 Time magazine article on the rise of the Burbank, California-based fast food chain Bob's Big Boy. According to the article, when a regular customer requested "something different" in 1936, Bob's founder Robert Wian "offhandedly carved a sesame-seed bun into three horizontal slices, slapped two beef patties between them, topped with cheese, relish and lettuce," thus inventing the double-decker hamburger. The wording of that sentence implies that Wian had sesame-seed buns on hand, but there's no telling when, exactly, he first started using them.

In any case, sesame-seed buns seem to have remained rare several decades after hamburgers rose to omnipresence. In a 1964 review of a restaurant called Plush Burger on East 60th Street in New York, legendary New York Times critic Craig Claiborne cited the restaurant's use of sesame-seed buns as an unusual, luxurious touch that elevated its burgers.

Mickey D’s

But if the progenitor of the sesame-seed hamburger bun has been lost to the sands of time, its popularizer is clear. That would be McDonald's. In 1968, the world's largest fast-food chain unveiled the now-iconic Big Mac, a double-decker hamburger served on a sesame-seed bun. McDonald's advertised the Big Mac in a national TV campaign that listed its ingredients as "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun." Even though McDonald's (unlike Burger King) kept serving most of its burgers on seedless buns, and still does, that ad brought America around to Craig Claiborne's idea that sesame seeds are a mark of a premium hamburger bun.

Yet one question remains: What are those sesame seeds for? They can't be there for flavor. The savory taste of the beef in a hamburger is more than strong enough to drown out their taste. You could make a better argument for texture, I suppose, or visual appeal. But in the end, their true purpose may just be another mysterious footnote in the bizarrely mysterious history of that most American of foods, the hamburger.

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