ATHENS, Texas (KETK) – The State of Texas officially recognized East Texas as the home of the hamburger in a 2007 resolution, despite evidence calling that into question.
Typical American dietary staples like pizza or hotdogs have clear European ancestry, but the hamburger is claimed as a local invention all across the United States. The Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States lists three northern locales as the home of the humble hamburger: Seymour, WI, Hamburg, NY and New Haven, CT.
However, residents of Athens, Texas claim the hamburger originates there.
Athens legend Fletcher ‘Uncle Fletch’ Davis is said to have started a stand where he sold his hamburger, which was incredibly popular in town before his business went by the wayside. Uncle Fletch’s creation was allegedly so popular that the Athenians pooled their money to send him to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
“So it goes to the World’s Fair in 1904. It gets reported in a New York publication. ‘A guy by the name of Fletcher Davis, from Athens, Texas has this amazing new food treat that he calls the hamburger,'” Jeff Weinstein, lawyer and Athens resident said. “And that, my friend, is the 60-second version of why everybody thinks that Athens, Texas is the home of the hamburger.”
Athens’ claim to hamburger fame goes beyond mere local legend and has official recognition. Back in 2007, Gov. Rick Perry signed House Concurrent Resolution 15 which designated Athens, Texas as the original home of the hamburger. The resolution lays out the same story as the one Weinstein recalled, how Uncle Fletch was sent to the Worlds Fair and was put into history by the New York Tribune.
However, one man disagrees with this culinary creation story. Barry Popik, etymologist and contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary has done research on the origins of all kinds of things, including hamburgers.
Popik lived in Austin when House Concurrent Resolution 15 was being drafted and naturally wanted to correct the record on the origin of the hamburger.
“While I was in Austin in 2006, a bill was passed declaring that the hamburger was invented in Athens, Texas. The bill also mentions that Fletcher Davis was interviewed by a New York Tribune reporter at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and that the Tribune reporter also stated that his ‘French fried potatoes’ were from Paris, Texas, where they got that name. It doesn’t get more ridiculous,” Popik said.
That New York Tribune article, where Uncle Fletch was interviewed at the 1904 World’s Fair, is a key part of the Athenian hamburger story. Popik said that no such article exists.
“The NY Tribune is digitized by ProQuest Historical Newspapers and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, and the 1904 Tribune ‘hamburger’ article doesn’t even exist!” Popik said.
According to Popik, no state officials on the relevant committees would speak to him about his findings and the bill was passed.
“In 2006, I wrote to state officials on the committees that I’d like to testify on this, and I’m a ‘hamburger’ expert, and I’ll present all my evidence for free. No one responded, and they passed the ‘Athens hamburger’ bill, bringing it up for committee votes after waiving public notice requirements–making absolutely certain I wasn’t there,” Popik said.
Popik’s website entry on the hamburger cites several articles which reference hamburgers, Hamburg beef or Hamburg steaks from before Uncle Fletch supposedly even moved to Athens in the late 1880s.
Ultimately, Popik is clear about the hamburger not being invented in Athens, but even Popik’s entry concludes that the origin of the modern hamburger is debated by scholars.
In Athens, the hamburger means more than any story– it’s a symbol. After all this time, it still brings people together for the Uncle Fletch Hamburger Festival in Athens.
Weinstein’s law firm, Weinstein Law, is a sponsor of the Uncle Fletch Hamburger Festival and he said that the festival is a great excuse to bring people together as a community.
“It’s just fun. It’s all community-based. And if you notice, every one of these little towns has something that they’re famous for, right? Whether it’s a rose or a tomato, or whatever it is,” Weinstein said. “And it’s just a really great excuse to get everybody together to have a fun little community celebration. I’ve referred to it throughout most of my time as just kind of corny, fun, good community small-town living.”
The festival is held in September or October of every year and is free for the public to attend. There’s a hamburger eating contest sponsored by McDonald’s, a mooing contest and a hamburger cooking contest where as many as 20 teams compete.
“So of course, if you’re the champion, you know, you’re the greatest hamburger on the planet for the year,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein remarked that the legend is just harmless fun.
“You know every town needs to be known for something. It’s not bad to be known as the home of the hamburger,” Weinstein said. “Well, if you’re ever in town, stop in. We’ll tell you everything you want to know and more about Athens, Texas, home of the hamburger.”