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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Seymour’s Burger Fest Has Sizzle

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The hamburger is one of the most iconic foods in America’s culinary repertoire, and the city of Seymour, Wis., just 15 miles west of Green Bay, claims primacy of the revered ground beef sandwich. Every year on the first weekend of August the city hosts Burger Fest, a two-day event celebrating its legacy and title.

According to legend, in the summer of 1885 a 15-year-old Hortonville boy named Charlie Nagreen hitched a yoke of oxen and traveled 20 miles north to Seymour’s fair to sell meatballs made of ground beef and onion. He predicted that fairgoers would work up an appetite as they walked from exhibit to exhibit, checking out the new labor-saving farm machinery, prize livestock and award-winning produce. Charlie found, however, that visitors didn’t want to stop and sit for a meal of messy meatballs, a trend reflected in his mediocre sales. So he did what resourceful entrepreneurs do and adapted. He procured some bread and then flattened the meatballs between two slices so people could walk and eat at the same time.

In Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States, John E. Harmon explains that the origin of ground beef emerged with the nomadic Tatar people of the Central Asian steppes, when they shredded low-quality cattle beef to make it more edible and digestible. “[Russian Tatars], possibly through other peoples in the Baltics, introduced it to Germany before the 14th century,” Harmon writes. “The Germans flavored it with regional spices and either cooked it or ate it raw. It became a standard meal for poorer classes and in Hamburg acquired the name ‘Hamburg steak.’”

According to an interview with Emil Wurm, an employee who worked for Nagreen from 1917 to 1923, “Charlie said he was the first to call ground beef in a bun a ‘hamburger’”—and did so because the dairy community’s large German population would recognize the name. Nagreen returned to the Seymour fair for the next 65 years, and also served his popular hamburgers at fairs in Green Bay, Oshkosh, Shawano and Weyauwega, among others.

In 1989, the proud people of Seymour hosted the first Burger Fest to celebrate their claim to burger fame. That year the festival served the world’s biggest hamburger, a whopping 5,520-pound behemoth that was so large a man had to swing above the beef patty in order to season it. The hamburger hamlet lost the title in 1999 to the Sleeping Buffalo resort in Saco, Mont., but regained it in 2001 with an 8,266-pound winner.

This year’s Burger Fest begins on Friday, Aug. 6, when 25 hot-air balloons take to the sky at 6 p.m. Two hours later, the balloons are lighted from within for the balloon glow. Saturday hosts the bulk of Burger Fest’s main activities, including a number of family-friendly events such as the Bun Run, a car show, a parade, a weight-lifting competition and a charity motorcycle ride. No Burger Fest would be complete without the hamburger-eating and build-a-burger contests, along with the ketchup slide, a crowd favorite that involves participants riding down a slide lubricated with ketchup.

Price of admission: $3 in advance and $5 day of event. For more information, visit www.homeofthehamburger.org.

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