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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

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Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Surprising History of Apple Cider Doughnuts

Apple cider doughnuts have a surprisingly modern history.
Apple cider doughnuts have a surprisingly modern history.
bhofack2/Getty Images

Apple cider doughnuts are synonymous with fall, particularly in New England, where apple orchards from Maine to Connecticut use their own cider to flavor the fluffy, golden rings. Both sweet and savory, and often dusted in finger-licking cinnamon sugar, apple cider doughnuts may seem like a quaint tradition inherited from Colonial times—but the tasty treats have a more modern history that may surprise you.

It all started with Russian immigrant and entrepreneur Adolf Levitt. According to Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, Levitt bought a chain of New York bakeries in 1916. He was impressed by American soldiers’ fondness for the fried loops of flavored dough and began developing a doughnut-making machine to take advantage of troops’ appetites. In one of his early marketing coups, he installed a prototype in the window of his Harlem bakery in 1920. The machine caught the eye—and the cravings—of passersby. Levitt went on to sell his doughnut-making machines and a standardized flour mix to other bakeries.

He spun his marketing prowess into founding the Doughnut Corporation of America. The corporation evangelized doughnuts in marketing campaigns across print media, radio, and TV. A World War II-era party manual the DCA produced noted, “no other food is so heartwarming, so heartily welcomed as the doughnut.” Levitt’s granddaughter Sally L. Steinberg wrote that Levitt, “made doughnuts America's snack, part of office breaks for coffee and doughnuts, of Halloween parties with doughnuts on strings, of doughnut-laden political rallies.”

The DCA launched the first National Doughnut Month in October 1928. In its zeal, the DCA sometimes made dubious recommendations. In 1941, along with surgeon J. Howard Crum, it advocated for the single source “doughnut diet.” Later it marketed “Vitamin Doughnuts” based on an enhanced flour mix it claimed provided more protein and nutrients than made-at-home creations. (The federal government required them to use the name “Enriched Flour Doughnuts,” according to Glazed America.) A skeptical public didn’t gobble up the sales pitch—or the doughnuts.

In 1951, however, the DCA introduced a flavor with staying power. A New York Times article from August 19 of that year observed, “A new type of product, the Sweet Cider Doughnut will be introduced by the Doughnut Corporation of America in its twenty-third annual campaign this fall to increase doughnut sales. The new item is a spicy round cake that is expected to have a natural fall appeal.”

The cider doughnut recipe gives a fall spin to the basic buttermilk doughnut by adding apple cider to the batter, with cinnamon and nutmeg boosting the autumnal flavor. Each orchard typically has its own family recipe and usually serves them paired with mulled apple cider. The doughnuts have caught on well beyond pastoral landscapes and are now seasonal favorites in national chains and home kitchens. Dunkin’ has taken up the mantle, and Smitten Kitchen and The New York Times have recipes for a make-at-home version.

Although the apple cider doughnut has stood the test of time, the DCA didn’t. J. Lyons & Co. bought out Levitt’s DCA in the 1970s, and the entrepreneurs behind Seattle’s Top Pot Doughnuts later bought the DCA trademark. The company distributes its doughnuts nationwide; however, its offerings don’t include a cider doughnut.