The history of literal steamed hams
I hope you're prepared for an unforgettable luncheon!
Hello, Snackers. Oh, egads! My roast is ruined.
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This is a post about one of the most famous moments in the history of The Simpsons and its origins and recent rebirth as an internet meme. It’s also a groundbreaking—groundbreaking!—investigation into the real, forgotten history of a food that was meant to be a joke.
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If you’re unfamiliar with the term “steamed hams” or need a refresher, please watch this clip from The Simpsons. It’s less than three minutes long and I promise it will improve your day significantly. Enjoy.
That clip is from an episode called “22 Short Films About Springfield,” which originally aired in April 1996. As the title implies, the episode was divided into 22 unrelated chapters instead of telling a single story. Each segment focused on a different character, with this one zooming in on Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers, with Skinner telling an escalating series of lies, each more absurd than the last and digging him in deeper, the whole thing following the same comedic principles as the crowded cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera”: keep building chaos and don’t let it break.
It’s goofy as hell and that’s the charm. Still, wasn’t a true pop-culture phenomenon right away; it was just one of many hilarious moments in a show full of them.
But in 2016, out of the blue, Steamed Hams—let’s treat them as a proper noun—exploded into a meme.
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The genius behind the mystery meat was Bill Oakley, who wrote for The Simpsons from 1992 to 1998 and was the co-showrunner from 1995 to 1997. The short was his idea and, he told me, the only Simpsons bit he wrote entirely by himself (he usually collaborated with Josh Weinstein).
In recent years, Bill has built a reputation not just for his television writing but for his expertise on the subjects of snacks and fast food, in particular his food reviews on Instagram. I’m a fan of his work and, as it happens, he’s an avid reader of Snack Stack. So I called him up, by which I mean we had video chat (because it’s 2022) to talk about snacks and steamed hams. He appeared on my screen with an eager smile and a literal pile of treats in the background, things readers had recently sent him, including rose-flavored Oreos from Japan, Old Bay goldfish crackers (“the best goldfish of all time, in my opinion”), Korean almonds, and Hawaiian Punch cotton candy.
Bill directed me to a Mel Magazine oral history of Steamed Hams a few years back, which has many details from many people, but he gave me a brief overview.
When he was working on the segment, he said, he chose “steamed clams”—Skinner’s first lie—and “steamed hams” simply because they rhymed and both sounded a little strange. “I didn't even know steamed clams were a real dish until about 2010, when I saw them on a menu in Seattle,” he told me. “I thought that was made up.”
At first, he wasn’t even sure the humor was working. He recalled to Mel:
The table read for the episode wasn’t all that successful, but we decided to do it anyway. After it broadcasted, we never really heard anything about it for years afterwards. Steamed Hams didn’t even become a thing until 2016, when some Australian grocery store kept getting calls from people asking for steamed hams.
According to Buzzfeed, which broke the story, it all started as a joke on Facebook, but the grocery store, Woolworths, ran with it, as brands often do these days. People started sending Bill people this post on the store’s Facebook page:
“I think that was the genesis of it becoming a thing other than the TV show, and then it kind of gradually built momentum until it took off in 2018,” Bill told me. “It was a meme of the year on the internet.”
Ten seconds of Google searching bears this out. There’s a Steamed Hams subreddit with 14,000 members and regular posts to this day. It’s all over Twitter and Facebook. You can buy at least twenty different styles of t-shirts referencing it in various clever ways. There are all manner of YouTube remixes, some of them with views in the millions: “Steamed Hams But Skinner Never Lies To Chalmers”; “Steamed Hams but there's a different animator every 13 seconds”; “Steamed Hams but it's Basket Case by Green Day.” Here’s Jeff Goldblum reading the entire scene.
Some internet scribes have looked at the history of steamed hamburgers, which turn out to be a house specialty of a place in Meriden, Connecticut called Ted’s Restaurant. Others have tried some DIY steamed hamburgers at home, like this version, which the AV Club says “end up looking pretty good, actually.”
Bill enjoys all the love and attention for his work. “I love it,” he said. “I'm so glad it’s mine and not someone else’s.” He had a hand in many iconic Simpsons moments, but this one is his alone; it’s the reason his food-focused Patreon (which is absolutely worth checking out) is called the Steamed Hams Society and Food Discovery Club. Still, gave up on trying to keep track of the endless memes and riffs on Steamed Hams. The list never stops growing. While we were chatting, he thought of a particular email someone had sent him and tried to find it quickly to read to me, but quickly gave up because when he searched his inbox for “steamed hams” there were far too many results to skim.
But there’s at least one angle Bill had never heard until I mentioned it to him: What about actual steamed hams? Like, not hamburgers but real ham, from pigs? Was that ever a thing?
It appears that no one else has done the research. So I did.
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Steamed hams absolutely existed, years before steamed hamburgers.
In fact, if we’re just going by published references (per Newspapers.com), the order appears to be:
Steamed clams (1862)
Steamed hams (1878)
Steamed hamburgers (1913)
(While we’re researching things, the earliest reference to a real-life Principal Skinner was in 1909.)
The very first mention of steamed hams, in 1878, was—fittingly!—from a discussion of an actual luncheon in Chicago, hosted by a temperance group, although the hams appear to be a reference to the things people could find elsewhere, in more troublesome and booze-serving spots.
It’s worth noting that this was the tail end of the steam age, when those hot clouds were the technological innovation of the time, capable of taking humanity to new heights (or depths, in the case of steam shovels or the drill that competed against John Henry). Directly adjacent to one newspaper ad for steamed hams, in 1894, was an ad for “steam pressed vitrified salt glazed sewer pipe,” an impressively long product name that sounds like something an overzealous robot would order at Starbucks.
Point is, there was steam everywhere and used for all kinds of purposes, and it’s human nature to apply the latest technology to every conceivable end (just ask whoever created the toaster that links to your smartphone). I don’t know for sure if steamed hams were the result of a Victorian-era tech nerd just messing around with the new trend or if there’s more to the story, but I like to imagine that’s what happened, and that it involved an elaborate a Jules Verne-style ham steamer, with pipes and gauges and all the steampunk trappings. Alas, I couldn’t find any images of a ham steamer, although I did find a description of one contraption sold in New Jersey in 1916, which consisted of “a copper boiler in which two aluminum containers are placed.” (Incidentally, none of the boiled ham news items I found came from upstate New York, meaning this particular dish is from neither Utica nor Albany.)*
When I told Bill that I’d found several mentions of real steamed hams, he laughed. “It seems like such a dumb way to cook it,” he said. “Why not bake it or roast it or fry it? You’d make it taste so much better.”
It appears that some ham purveyors of the era agreed. Here’s an ad from Janesville, Wisconsin in 1910:
In this telling, and in others I found online, steamed hams just don’t measure up to, well, any other variety of ham.
Steamed hams seem to have disappeared after 1922, aside from a solitary mention in an English newspaper in 1994, although that recipe called for flash-roasting the hams at the end of the cooking process. They don’t seem like the sort of food likely to make a comeback anytime soon, except as a joke. Still, I wouldn’t entirely count it out. Sometimes—as with the Steamed Hams sketch itself—things just need some time to become popular.
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If you do decide to steam some ham, here are some tips and here are more. Send me a photo, please! I’m here for all comments, feedback, post suggestions, or just to chat. Email me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter.
— Doug Mack, Snack Fan
*This post was updated to add that important parenthetical information. Thank you to alert reader Jon Campbell for flagging the omission.
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