The Real Story Of 'Simpsons' Steamed Hams
It is difficult to determine just how many people have seen the Steamed Hams segment from The Simpsons. It first aired in April 1996 when the show was at the height of its popularity. It ran as part of an anthology-style episode called "22 Short Films About Springfield."
Full disclosure: this whole article may have just been an excuse to get paid to watch this sketch.
The imminently quotable sketch features Principle Seymour Skinner trying to impress his boss Super
nintendointendent Chalmers with a homecooked meal on a weekend afternoon. Things rapidly go awry when Skinner discovers that his roast has caught fire, and he is seized with the delightfully devilish idea of buying fast food from the nearby Krusty Burger and passing it off as his own. Caught sneaking out of the window to enact his plan, Principle Seymour tells the first in a now-legendary series of lies that begins with isometric exercises and ends with his house burning down due to the "aurora borealis."
The original segment has been uploaded to YouTube numerous times over the years, and most instances have at least a few million views. But what makes a full accounting of how many people have watched Principal Skinner's impeccable poker face are the dozens of remixes people made after it became a meme. It has been reanimated by dozens of artists, reimagined as a Metal Gear Solid level, and even performed by Jeff Goldblum.
Skillful editors have created so many different versions that it is easy to spend hours tracking down different versions and keep discovering new riffs. Personally, I am partial to Steamed Hams, but it's in Twin Peaks; the recreation of the opening and the addition of Lynchian horror elements in an affectionate parody of both properties is a sight to behold.
But as much as I love Steamed Hams as a meme, Skinner's lies manage to irk me a little every time I watch it. He says that the clearly grilled burgers are called Steamed Hams in upstate New York.
You see, I really do come from the land of the steamed ham(burger). But it is not an Albany expression, oh no. But neither is it something you'd hear in Utica. Steamed hams are one of the most unique variations on the classic American sandwich around, and they're only found in Connecticut.
We do not tend to call them that specifically, but the steamed cheeseburger is an honored tradition in central Connecticut. Or at least a popular local delicacy. If Skinner lived in the Connecticut River Valley (which, considering Springfield's rotating geographical location, is always a possibility), he would have no trouble convincing Superintendent Chalmers that his family recipe involved steaming. The grill marks would have still been a tough sell, though.
Ted's Restaurant in Meridian, Connecticut, claims to be the original home of the steamed cheeseburger and celebrates steaming hams since 1959. That means that for more than 60 years, there have been true steamed hams. That is about roughly twice as long as The Simpsons have been running …
… and before the show was even a glint in cartoonist Matt Groening's eye.
Well, Ted's, you are an odd restaurant, but we must say: you steam a good ham.
Yet Ted Oakley, who wrote the now immortal sketch years before becoming a fast-food critic and Kickstarter toy designer, had no idea that steamed hamburgers were a real thing. Nor did he realize until recently, when people started spamming him with pictures from the region, what a phenomena they secretly are.
For quite some time, the steamed cheeseburgers served up by Ted's have been something of a local secret, found only in the immediate region where the custom beef steaming setups can be found. At Ted's, the steamer is set up like a cabinet full of trays that will hold either a beef patty or a block of cheese. The result is a beef patty retains almost all of its juices since the steam doesn't cook any of it out, keeping it plump and moist. At the same time, the cheese is rendered a molten mound of gold which flows over and envelops the beef, nothing like a sad slice of American "cheese" just barely melted by the heat of the mass-market "meat" you would find at, say a Krusty Burger.
Alright, now that's just plain pornographic.
Add in their signature home fries as a side, and you are in for an unforgettable luncheon.
Ted's also has a food truck called the "Steam Machine," a vintage van with raw metal panels that expands the range of the hamburger steamer beyond where Ted's and other local eateries traditionally produce what to the rest of the country is just a joke.
And while Ted's has been featured on The Phantom Gourmet and several other shows as a culinary curiosity, it isn't alone. There's American Steamed, in the neighboring town of Wallingford, also K LaMay's, which is in both Meriden and Wallingford. They're not the only places to find steamed hams either, but the relative obscurity of the dish and the simple home-town vibe of many of the places that serve steamed burgers mean that most places you can order one lack a pronounced web presence. Despite the popularity of Skinner's sketch, it can be hard to find somebody who steams a good ham.
For example, O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown, CT, claims it has been serving steamed cheeseburgers since 1941 and even has a house specialty version called the Kronenberger. But as strictly a breakfast and lunch spot O'Rourke's relies mainly on locals and shuts down at 2 pm.
If you now have a hankering for a steamed ham and can't explore central Connecticut, First We Feast and Babish have you covered. And when you invite your local superintendent over to provide an impressive spread, remember, steamed Hams aren't an upstate New York dialect; they're a central Connecticut treat.
And when it comes to ground beef, Connecticut's hamburger history goes beyond even the singular steamed hams at the state's heart. New Haven, known widely as the home of Yale University, is also home to the institution behind an innovation arguably more important than anything to come out of an Ivy League University: the hamburger itself.
Louis' Lunch, a tiny counter that replaced a lunch wagon that started serving quick meals to factory workers in 1895, has a strong claim to be the hamburger's originator. According to legend, a man in 1900 came in and stressed that he was in a rush, and in a burst of what must have been divine inspiration, Louis blended the beef he had on hand and served it up with cheese, onion, and tomato on white toast. They still serve their burgers the exact same way, cooked in vintage upright broilers and with a scoop of potato salad. Ketchup is famously banned from the premises.
It is true that many dispute the origin of this most American of Sandwiches. Akron, Ohio went so far as to hold a trial over the matter in 2006, though negotiations eventually led to a squashed beef with Ohio dropping its claims in exchange for Connecticut ceasing to argue it was "first in flight" on the basis of a poorly documented experimental aircraft designed by Gustave Whitehead.
Regardless of where you stand, it is an incontrovertible fact that Louis' burgers have been served the same way for over a century, offering a glimpse into culinary history you can order and actually enjoy. Unlike your grandma's aspic and spam Jello mold recipe … that should probably be left in the past.
And how you order at Louis' is also a matter of interest for anybody who has a hankering for patented Skinner burgers. Louis expects regulars to know their in-house lingo for making their orders. Want your burger with everything, including cheese spread on both slices of toast? That's a cheese works. But if you're avoiding dairy, you'll ask for the "ham works," ditto any other combination of ingredients without the cheese. They may not be steamed, but what customers are getting at Louis' Lunch are undeniably hams. And what's more, New Haven is just a stone's throw away from the towns where they really do steam their hams.
Connecticut may be small, but even if one doubts the veracity of the claims that we originated the hamburger, the outsize influence we have had on the world of steaming hams cannot be denied. And believe it or not, The Simpsons isn't the only adult and edgy teen-oriented cartoon show to have taken cues from a Connecticut regional specialty.
The grinder, known elsewhere as a sub, a hero, a po'boy, a hoagie, or even a wedge, shows up in Adult Swim shows like The Venture Brothers and Xavier: Renegade Angel. There are pockets of grinder fans across the United States, but it is decidedly a regional dialect. One that can and will lead to confusion with the app Grindr, so bear that in mind.
It isn't entirely clear how Dean Venture, a cartoon character parodying the likes of the old Johnny Quest show, winds up opening a grinder and lemonade stand despite growing up in an isolated super-science compound in the middle of the desert, but sure enough, he does. And it's not clear at all what's happening at any point during an episode of Xavier, but the fact remains our regional word for a hot sandwich on crusty bread comes out of his beak on a couple of occasions, though not when he wanders into the doomed fictional town of Burbury, Connecticut.
Well, that was a wonderful exploration of meme with strange real-life parallels. A good time was had by all. I'm pooped! Please, never mind aurora borealis going on in the kitchen ...
Top Image: 20th Television