A Juicy History of Steak-Umm

Steak-umm
Steak-umm

Eugene Gagliardi, patriarch of the Gagliardi meatpacking business, raised the 22-ounce frozen log of beef byproducts that would shortly become known as Steak-umm and sent it careening into his son’s ankle.

“Nobody is ever going to buy this sh*t!” he screamed, storming off.

"My dad was not supportive," Gene Gagliardi, whose Achilles tendon had been targeted, tells Mental Floss. "I decided to work on it at night."

The elder Gagliardi was not a man given to flights of fancy in the meat business, and now was not the time to try his patience with an experiment. It was the mid-1960s and his company was floundering, having lost some valuable accounts in recent months. What the younger Gagliardi had perceived to be a possible solution was, to his father, a joke. To Gene, it seemed like nothing could be done to please his father—not even his idea to revolutionize the frozen beef business by collecting scraps of unwanted meat and pressing it into a loaf.

The younger Gagliardi would eventually sell Steak-umm to Heinz for $20 million. He was one of the few who saw the potential for thinly-sliced steaks and refused to abandon the idea, even as his ankle throbbed.


Steak-umm Meats via YouTube

When Gagliardi was 6 years old, his father seated him on a pear crate, put a knife in his hand, and told him to start cutting. Chopping beef and poultry was the family business, and the Gagliardi clan—Eugene and his three sons, with Gene the middle child—were prominent meat merchants in the West Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania. There was no time to waste.

In the 1950s, the Gagliardis found success selling portion-controlled meat cuts long before commercial food manufacturers started peddling smaller serving sizes for dieters. They also curated premium slabs of beef and sold them to high-end clientele. When the fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s began to proliferate, the Gagliardis earned their business, too.

But by the 1960s, the laundry list of accounts had begun to dry up. Cheaper suppliers were becoming more abundant, and the personalized touch of Gagliardi Brothers was becoming less of a buying influence. With business slowing down, Gene Gagliardi would stay up late at night and think about how to bring his family’s finances back from the brink. That way, maybe his father would allow him to pursue his dream of being a park ranger in Montana.

One of those nights, the then-30-year-old identified a problem with the well-known Philly-style cheesesteaks. The chewy steak cuts were tough to handle for both children and senior citizens, and posed a bit of a choking risk across the board. Gagliardi thought a tender source of the beef would broaden the appeal of the cheesesteak and open it up to a larger market.

"It was tough cow meat back then," he says. "You had to be real careful about feeding it to kids because the meat would drag out of the sandwich. I thought, well, if you can homogenize milk, you should be able to homogenize meat."

Gagliardi thought he could soften up the meat by running it repeatedly through a meat grinder. "I did that about five times, extracting the protein out, and it became a solid mass. I couldn't slice it, so I froze it and then put it back in the fridge for four days to temperate it, then sliced it." Gagliardi had created a tender meat product that could be sold frozen and virtually eliminated the choking hazards of conventional Philly cheesesteaks.

(In a 2012 federal court ruling, a judge would articulate exactly what Gagliardi had done. "[The Steak-umm was] from chopped and formed emulsified meat product that is comprised of beef trimmings left over after an animal is slaughtered and all of the primary cuts, such as tenderloin, filet, and rib eye, are removed,” Judge Lawrence Stengel wrote. “The emulsified meat is pressed into a loaf and sliced, frozen, and packaged.")

Because the beef was so flat, it took only 30 seconds to cook each side. Gagliardi tasted it, found it delicious, and thought he’d solved his family’s problems.

His father was not a fan. After berating his son for even contemplating the idea, he begrudgingly allowed him to peddle it to supermarkets. Gagliardi offered to sell it below cost so stores would carry it. Marketed under the Gagliardi's frozen brand of Table Treats, the frozen meat slices debuted in 1969.

"We actually sold it to school lunch programs," Gagliardi says. "Kids ate it, loved it, then went home and asked for it."

Its eye-raising origins aside, shoppers seemed to embrace the product. It was quick to make—some college students even cooked the slices by wrapping them in foil and ironing them—tasty, and easy to chew. The company even distributed it with frozen rolls for a complete Philly cheesesteak experience. By 1975, Gagliardi was distributing them under the name Steak-umm after a friend suggested it during a quail hunting expedition. By 1980, he says, it was the best-selling frozen meat product in retailer freezers: "Competitors would try to pay off inspectors to find out how we did it."

While the Steak-umm name was trademarked, Gagliardi was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for the process used to make them. He blamed confusion in filing the papers. "My brother was Mr. Thrifty and went to an attorney who had never filed for a patent before," he says.

Whatever the case, Steak-umm knock-offs became pervasive. When Heinz approached the brothers in 1980 with an offer of $20 million for the rights, it was an easy decision.

The marketing muscle of Heinz further endeared the Steak-umm brand to consumers. Heinz (via their Ore-Ida division) owned Steak-umm through 1994 before selling it back to Gagliardi and his newest venture, Designer Foods. All along, the butcher had been treating his kitchen like a lab, finding new ways to trim meats to maximize profitability for distributors. He wound up patenting several novel methods, including what would become KFC’s Popcorn Chicken in 1992.

Steak-umm changed hands once more in 2006, when Quaker Maid Meats purchased the company. In 2008, they entered into lengthy litigation with Steak ‘Em Up, a Philadelphia-based eatery that Quaker alleged was guilty of consumer confusion. A 2012 federal ruling was in favor of the defendant, who serves authentic Philly cheesesteaks and “thought it was a joke” that anyone could confuse them for the frozen alternative.

At 86, Gagliardi still toils at the butcher’s block, working on food innovation for his company, Creativators. Despite his numerous contributions to food service, he still feels slighted by his father, who passed away in 1991 and apparently never acknowledged his son’s success.

"I never got a compliment," he says.

10 Frank Facts About the Wienermobile

Business Wire
Business Wire

This year marks the 83rd anniversary of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, that effortlessly charming, street-legal marketing tool on wheels. The next time you’re in the vicinity of one—a fleet of six makes up to 1400 stops annually—take the time to reflect on the past, present, and future of history’s most famous locomoting hot dog.

1. The Wienermobile started as a kind of land sub. 


Oscar Mayer

In 1936, Carl Mayer, nephew of hot dog scion Oscar Mayer, suggested a marketing idea to his uncle: build a 13-foot-long mobile hot dog and cruise around the Chicago area handing out his “German wieners” to stunned pedestrians. Crafted from a metal chassis, the vehicle was operated by Carl, who could usually be seen with his torso sticking out from the cockpit.

2. The Wienermobile was once driven by "Little Oscar."

Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Oscar Mayer enlisted various little people to portray “Little Oscar,” a company mascot sporting a chef’s hat. Little Oscar soon assumed piloting duties for the Wienermobile, waving to crowds and dispensing wiener whistles that kids could use to alert other children to the presence of the car in their neighborhood. Performer George Malchan portrayed the character from 1951 to 1987.

3. The Wienermobile disappeared for decades.

While novelty automobiles were all the rage circa World War II, Oscar Mayer saw interest wane in the 1960s and 1970s, as kitsch gave way to more contemporary advertising campaigns. But when the company put a Wiener back on the road for its 50th anniversary in 1986, they discovered a whole generation of consumers who were nostalgic for the car. The company ordered six new models in 1988.

4. Wienermobile drivers train at Hot Dog High.

Since resurrecting the marketing campaign, Oscar Mayer has trained aspiring Wienermobile drivers at Hot Dog High in Madison, Wisconsin. The company receives 1000 to 1500 applications for the 12 available positions annually, typically from college graduates looking for a road trip experience. Those selected for duty are given 40 hours of instruction and assigned a different region of the country. The company tracks their routes with a GPS.

5. Wienermobile passengers ride "shotbun."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Wienermobile motorists—a.k.a. Hotdoggers—typically ride in pairs, with the driver keeping an eye on the road and the passenger acknowledging and waving to passersby who want to interact with the vehicle. This is known as riding “shotbun,” and the greetings are mandatory. Some occupants have reported that even after going off-duty, they’ll keep waving to other drivers out of habit.

6. The Wienermobile interior is just as delicious.

Wienermobile fans who are invited to board—and promise to fasten their “meat belts” before rolling—are treated to a rare peek inside the vehicle’s interior. Ketchup- and mustard-colored upholstery surround the six seats, with condiment "stains" dotting the floor; for parades, occupants can wave from the “bunroof.” Two accent hot dogs are parked on the dashboard.

7. The Wienermobile once crashed into a house.

Though it can be challenging to pilot an enormous hot dog, most Wienermobiles log mileage without incident. A rare exception: a 2009 accident near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a driver attempted to back the vehicle out of a residential driveway, thought she was in reverse, but shot forward and bored into an unoccupied home.

8. Al Unser Jr. drove the Wienermobile for laps at the Indy 500.

While one might expect the Wienermobile to have the handling of a tube-shaped camper, some models were surprisingly nimble. Race car driver Al Unser Jr. took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1988 and drove it for laps. The dog reached an impressive 110 miles per hour.

9. There's a version of the Wienermobile called a "Wienie-Bago."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile WIENIE-BAGO
Oscar Mayer

Super Bowl attendees who couldn’t snag a hotel room in San Francisco for the 2016 showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos had a pork-based solution: Oscar Mayer auctioned off two nights in their Wienie-Bago, an RV that sleeps four. Missed it? If you're in Chicago, you can rent a Wienermobile that sleeps two for $136 a night. A bed, outdoor dining area, and a fridge stocked with hot dogs are all included.

10. You can buy a miniature Wienermobile.

For the 2015 gift-giving season, Oscar Mayer issued a limited-edition, remote-controlled version of the Wienermobile. The 22.5-inch-long mini-dog sent collectors scrambling on Cyber Monday, when the company released just 20 for purchase at a time. The Rover is able to hold two hot dogs for transport across picnic tables. You can still find them on eBay.

Autumnal Dessert Spices and Cubed Meat Collide: Pumpkin Spice SPAM Now Exists

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Does sipping on a pumpkin spice latte ever make you think: “Man, I wish this were cubed meat”? Soon, it will be. According to NBC News, Hormel will start selling Pumpkin Spice SPAM on September 23.

It all started back in October of 2017, when Hormel announced via its Facebook page that pumpkin spice SPAM was coming—as a joke. The post clearly stated that it wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop scores of people from making comments about how it would probably taste delicious and asking where they could purchase a can.

Now, a Hormel publicist has confirmed to NBC News that the limited-edition, fall-themed flavor will soon be available to order online from Walmart or Spam.com.

"True to the brand’s roots, SPAM Pumpkin Spice combines deliciousness with creativity, allowing the latest variety to be incorporated into a number of dishes, from on-trend brunch recipes to an easy, pick-me-up snack,” Hormel told NBC News.

While Pumpkin Spice SPAM might not yet be accepted into pumpkin spice canon alongside lattes and muffins, it’s far from the strangest product that has been imbued with the mysterious, cinnamon-y spice blend to date; we’ll leave automotive exhaust spray and light bulbs to duke it out for that designation. And the Facebook commenters might have actually been onto something when they dared to suggest that Pumpkin Spice SPAM had palatal potential. After all, ham recipes often include sweet ingredients like maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey. And, according to TIME, the word spam was invented as a portmanteau of spiced ham.

Wondering what other SPAM innovations you might be missing out on? Check out these recipes from around the world.

[h/t NBC News]

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