The Origin of Modern Specious Fast-Food
By R. D. Flavin


Ca. 1500 colored-lithograph (book illustration). English, though provenance unknown.

     We know street-vendors sold whatever they could in ancient times and while many place the origin of the term 'Middle Class' in the 18th century, I would argue it was the rise of larger citys in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and the surrounding locals who would venture a trip into town for either purchasing or buying, which saw the first rise of modern 'street-vendors' who sold finger food, or food which could be consumed quickly while standing, or in other words, fast-food. An online blogger has written:

Medieval people generally viewed fast food as a kind of last resort of the unlucky – low-quality food prepared in dubious establishments by shady characters, unwholesome and unhealthy. Modern fast food establishments enjoy a similarly bad reputation; we are bombarded with messages about the fundamentally unhealthy nature of fast food, and yet fast food consumption continues to rise (

As to the origin of modern specious fast-food, American specifically, is more interesting than it is complicated.

     Culinary historians are familiar with the fact most American Chinese food was initially created in San Francisco during the 1850s to the 1870s, basically to feed the poor, the working class, and the curious, though it was during this period San Francisco saw the emergence of Wells Fargo, the Pacific Railroad, the dry goods of Levi Strauss (later introducing denim jeans), Domingo Ghirardelli's chocolate, and, of course, the famous cable cars. Such American Chinese dishes and appetizers such as General Tso's chicken (also known as General Gau's chicken), chop suey (Cantonese Chinese for "assorted pieces"), crab rangoon, fortune cookies (copied from the Japanese omikuji senbei), pepper and Mongolian beef, fried wontons, beef & broccoli, and much else (including the infamous chop suey sandwich from Salem, Massachusetts). Some may debate whether or not American Chinese food should be classified as 'fast-food', though the best chicken egg foo young I've ever tasted was in Panama. After a fashion, American Chinese food may be regarded as a global fast-food.

"A Paradise for Tramps" and a listing for Hamburger steak at 10 cents from Texas Siftings (Austin, TX), Feb. 13, 1886; issue 41 and p. 2.

     There are many claims as to who first invented the 'hamburger', many which are supported by newspaper accounts and print mentions in the late 19th century. However, folklore would have hamburger sandwich gaining national recognition when the New York Tribune wrote about the first hamburger as premiered at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair (along with claims of peanut butter, hot dogs, cotton candy, ice tea, and probably the first marketing of Dr. Pepper soda pop and Puffed Wheat cereal). Hamburger and hamburger steak sandwiches had been available in much of the country after ca. 1870, costing a nickel or a dime, and there was even several punk additive controversies of sodium sulfite. 1904 was extremely significant and likely did spread the popularity of the hamburger throughout the entire country.


Headline, White Wagon offerings including Hamburger steak and an illustration of stools inside the wagon, from "The White Lunch Wagons" in The Kansas City Star, Mar. 27, 1904; Second Section, p. 1.

     Aside: When I moved to Brooklyn, NY for a couple of years, one of the first things I did was seek out a White Castle restaurant and ordered a dozen. When I returned home and examined the first Slider, the little burger had mustard on it (as well as the steamed onions and pickles). Mustard? I called the manager and was told ALL White Castle hamburgers were served with mustard – he may have even slurred something about another borough (the Bronx) which allegedly put ketchup on their Sliders. This was too much... I telephoned the corporate headquarters of the the White Castle System, Inc., currently located in Columbus, OH, and complained to a telephone operator who immediately connected me to the White Castle archivist. White Castle has an 'archivist', I asked myself. Soon, I was complaining to a polite and soft-spoken middle-aged man who, after a time, spoke up and said I knew more about White Castle hamburgers and burgers in general than he did. He apologized and sent me several coupons for a “Sack of Sliders,” that is, a bag containing a dozen little White Castle steamed hamburgers, and he also enclosed a copy of “All This from a 5-cent Hamburger!” The Story of the White Castle System by E. W. Ingram, Sr. (1964, printed for the Newcomen Society of North America, Princeton University Press: Princeton, N. J.). The friends, Edgard “Billy” Ingram and Walter Anderson, through trial and error developed their steaming system with little square hamburger patties with five small holes which cooked so fast the patties didn't have to be 'flipped'. The friends and financial partners opened their first restaurant in Wichita, KS in 1921. They were relentless with perfecting a cleanliness system and their restaurants soon spread nearly coast to coast (with dozens, if not hundreds, of copy-cat little hamburger restaurants springing up like crab-grass. That was the '50s and 60s, but by the '70s even the copy-cat restaurants began to close in large chunks of the country like New England and restaurants west of the Mississippi.

     Big Boy, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, took up the slack and got the hamburger sales from White Castle-less cities and then alongside them and eventually ...there was fast-food everywhere!

Classic American hot dog with mustard, onion, and relish.

     Well, now is as a good a time as any to tell the tale of the dog and its diverse beginnings and today's variations. Much like the hamburger sandwich, the burger was initially naed after a German immigrant's home town of Hamburg, Germany, so too was the 'frankfurter'. Indeed, 'franks' were originally pork sausages handed out since the 13th century at coronations, though given the name “Frankfurter Würstchen” starting with the 1562 crowning of Maximilian II as the Holy Roman Emperor (and the 'King of Germany”) by the electoral college in Frankfurt. And, as the tale wags, to the south of Germany, in the beautiful country of Austria, a similar sausage was produced in Vienna (German Wien), with a mixture of pork and beef and known as a 'Wiener'. It's said the Frankfurter Würstchen was brought to Vienna in the late 18th or early 19th centuries and beef was added to the pork sausage and the result was referred to as a 'frankfurter'. In most German-speaking countries the pork and beef sausages as called wiener or wiener würstchen (German for 'little sausage'), while in Swiss German the name is wienerli and, for reasons too mundane, in today's Austria they use the term frankfurter würstel (würstel having the meanings of sausage, weenie, and Vienna sausage). Now, as to who first put the hot dog on a bun, most generally credit Charles Feltman, a German immigrant, who first began serving the little sausage on rolls in Coney Island, NY around 1870, though, of course, other claims are made. I shan't discuss the origin of the term 'hot dog' as there was a time when pork and beef were not the only meats used in the manufacture of the little sausages...

Joe and Nemo's and a poster for the Old Howard Burlesque theater.

     Now, as I mentioned my hometown Chicago hot dog (the one with a salad on top) above, it's only fair I briefly discuss the hot dog of my adopted 'hometown' of Boston. The steamed Joe and Nemo's hot dog was first sold in 1909 at a shop on Stoddard Street, though thereafter moved to another nearby location on the corner of Stoddard and Cambridge Streets. The buns were steamed, the dogs cooked in water (though NEVER boiled), and originally served with mustard, onions, relish, and horseradish and ordered as “one all around,” though they soon left off the horseradish. It became a West End, Scolley Square, and Boston tradition and many a serviceman in WWII would openly wish for a Joe and Nemo's “one all around.” In June of 1963 the last Joe and Nemo hot dog was served in Scolley Square, though a brief comeback occurred in the early 2000s on the corner of Cambridge in between Staniford and Bowdoin Streets. I bought a Joe and Nemo's hot dog out of a push-cart around 2004 in Peabody and was told various family members were fighting over the trademark name. For more about Joe and Nemo's, see:

     While the ancient Greeks are known to have used oil and spices on their flat-breads, the word 'pizza' can be traced back to duodecim pizze (Latin for "twelve pizzas") as in 997 CE, an unknown tenant was required to prepare twelve pizzas for the local bishop every Christmas Day. In relatively modern times, the Italians would cover their flat-breads with basil, cheese, garlic, lard, and salt (no one knows for sure when tomatoes were introduced, as the tomato was a New World plant and a member of the sometimes dangerous Solanaceae family, and it was a couple of hundred years after Columbus that Italians finally trusted the consumption of the tomato fruit). In the 18th and 19th centuries, pizzas were sold at open-air stands and pizza bakeries (now called pizzerias) in Naples. In 1738, pizzas were sold from a stand in Port'Alba, Italy and with the opening of a restaurant in 1830, the Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba is now regarded as the world's first pizzeria.

     The often repeated legend of pizza being invented in 1889 to honor of a visit by Queen Margherita and the use of tomato (red), basil (green), and white (mozzarella cheese) and thereafter referred to a “Pizza Margherita” is dubious, as the Neapolitan pizzaiolo (pizza maker) Raffaele Esposito proudly displayed a royal “thank you” letter on the wall of his pizzeria, but has now been proven to be a 1938 forgery (see: Regardless, Italian immigrants soon introduced pizzas to America in the late 19th century and in 1897, New York City witnessed the opening of Lombardi's, acknowledged as America's first pizzeria. The rest is ...yummy fast-food history.

     “Specious Fast-Food” implies edibles which look good, yet are essentially bad for you. Yeah, we had Morgan Spurlock's 2004's Super Size Me, the mock-documentary about eating nothing but food from McDonald's for a month, but there are folks in many parts of the world who would be eternally (and internally) thankful for such a rich diet. To release my closet pessimism, I have a strong feeling there actually are dozens, if not hundreds, of Honey-Boo-Boo Americans who 'normally' eat mainly at McDonald's. Personally, I'd prefer Burger King, Wendy's, or Popeye's Chicken on a small budget, though with a little more cash I could see myself being content with 5 Guys. Okay, maybe I should aspire to a better and more nutritional diet ...and I promise to think about it real soon

Boston's cheesesteaks, Chicago's Italian beefs, and decent gyros are somewhere on the food pyramid,

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