The hamburger originates from the tradition of placing pork between two slices of bread in Hamburg, Germany. Yet now hamburgers with all their variations are considered uniquely American. The first US hamburgers were possibly sold in Seymour, Wisconsin in the late 19th century. Embellishing the hamburger soon became common fare, and the first cheeseburgers, a hamburger with a slice of melted cheese, was likely invented in 1924 in Pasadena, California, by Lionel Sternberger.
It's unclear when the actual patty melt was invented, but records exist of them being served as early as the 1940s. They embellish on the traditional cheeseburger, and further take the burger back to its roots by being served on bread versus a bun. The patty melt is usually served between two slices of grilled rye bread, just as early hamburgers were served between two pieces of bread.
The classic patty melt is a pretty wonderful thing if you’re a fan of hamburgers and onions. Traditionally the sandwich includes one hamburger patty, which is topped with swiss cheese. Grilled onions are added and the whole burger with rye bread included is grilled to fully melt the cheese. The result is a hot, flavorful burger that differs from the normal hamburger patty. Substitutions for rye bread include panini, Texas toast, or any type of white bread, and some burgers can be made of turkey.
Typically patty melts are served with lettuce, tomato and pickles on the side, and don’t have condiments on the bread. Some restaurants that serve this popular diner fare slather the inside of the bread with thousand island dressing, but this is not usual. You can certainly request condiments on the patty melt, but the flavor of the onions often renders them unnecessary.
The patty melt has come in and out of fashion depending upon dining trends. You’ll frequently find them in diners, especially those that are either styled after 1950s diners or that have been in business since the 50s. In the 1990s, the patty melt got a boost in popularity when several chain fast food restaurants began to offer the sandwiches. To keep this hamburger style manageable and easy to eat on the go, many fast food restaurants use round bread, similar to a bun without the rise. However, if it's not made with rye bread, regardless of shape, many people consider it a variant of the patty melt and not authentic.
Patty melts are said to have inspired the tuna melt, which uses tuna instead of a hamburger patty. Otherwise, they are virtually the same; they are grilled to melt the cheese and can include grilled onions. Tuna melts became popular in the late 40s, and many people preferred them because of the lower fat content in tuna.
You actually can make a patty melt that is low fat, especially if you use a low fat, low calorie cheese. Instead of using beef, substitute ground turkey or chicken for the patty. When you grill onions, use either a low fat cooking spray or a small amount of low fat oil. Rather than frying the sandwich in oil or margarine, simply toast the bread, and allow the cheese to melt directly on the hamburger a minute or two before the burger is fully cooked. This will give you a low fat version of the diner classic, and a tantalizing sandwich for your tastebuds.