Who Invented the All-American Cheeseburger?

The Answer Is Fraught With More Questions

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Much like the hamburger, it's impossible to know sure who created America's first cheeseburger. Even if who should get the credit remains a mystery, it can't be argued that this is one terrific sandwich, about as all-American as you can get.

Inventor Legends

Many food historians credit 16-year-old Lionel Sternberger, who in 1924 decided to slap a slice of American cheese (what else?) onto a cooking hamburger at his father's Pasadena, California, sandwich shop, the Rite Spot.

He liked it, and so did his dad, and thus the cheeseburger was born. Or was it?  They called it a "cheese hamburger," so that may disqualify the Sternbergers on a technicality.

The first sandwich to actually be called a "cheeseburger" was at Kaelin's restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. Charles Kaelin claims to have invented the cheese-topped burger in 1934 because he wanted, reports Louisville writer Robin Garr, to "add a new tang to the hamburger." This is the earliest example of a menu claiming to be "the birthplace of the cheeseburger."

Then there's Louis Ballast of Humpty Dumpty Drive-In in Denver, who trademarked the name "cheeseburger" in 1935. 

Modern Variations

Even if most Americans (except vegetarians) share a huge love of cheeseburgers, they also are passionate about the different ways they like them cooked and how they like them topped.

First, there's the fried and smashed patty.

This type of burger is common in hamburger joints and diners that originated in the 1930s, possibly not coincidentally the same time the first cheeseburger was invented, and in newer restaurants that emulate these diners. Order these up as a single, double or triple. They are always cooked well-done.

Add the cheese (always American), choice of toppings (lettuce, tomato, pickles, raw onions) and condiments (mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise). Simple and splendid, and the genuine article.

Then there's the so-called bar burger. These began to show up on menus several decades later in the 20th century and are thick, juicy and grilled. You get your choice of doneness. You get your choice of cheese: American, cheddar, Monterey Jack, Swiss, and even Gruyere, Gouda or blue if you are in an upscale restaurant. You can even have more than one type of cheese on a custom order. You can order the usual toppings -- lettuce, tomato, pickles and raw onions -- for a classic. Or you can add bacon, avocado, guacamole, sauteed onions, mushrooms or chilies. Top this off with the classic condiment you love best -- but if you are up for a bit of adventure, dollop on some barbecue sauce, chipotle mayo or Dijon mustard.

Trendy gourmet burgers are dolled-up bar burgers with upscale buns and unusual toppings of a wide variety depending on the restaurant; they are a chef's creation. But if you have a jones for a cheeseburger, this really won't satisfy. Not even close.

Sides

Now, the cheeseburger is the main event.

But like eggs need bacon, cheeseburgers need sides. Whether old-fashioned smashed or bar burger, the choices are traditional: french fries, onion rings, potato salad, slaw. Diners that serve smashed burgers just about always offer up milkshakes as a traditional must-have, and you'll often find shakes are so important they are up in lights as part of the name of these joints.