Meaty Ideas

Eugene D. Gagliardi Jr. invented Steak-umms, Popcorn Chicken and Hooter's Hot Thighs, and he's still thinking up ways to put protein on your plate.

September 17, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

ATGLEN, Pa. - Between Genesis and the early Clinton years, countless men and women with knives faced myriad chickens in pursuit of innumerable meals to please, perhaps even surprise. Consider this in light of U.S. Patent No. 5,346,711, giving the holder exclusive rights to a chicken breast.

Well, a way of cutting a chicken breast. The patent, issued September 1994, says: "Method of Making an Animal Muscle Strip Product."

Little poetry there, but inventor Eugene D. Gagliardi Jr. has a better idea for a name. He suggests "Fing'r-Pick'n-Chick'n," and hopes to sell it to owners of a few hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises out West. Hence, aboard a recent Delta Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City for the sales presentation sat Gagliardi, 72 years old, a gray-bearded and vigorous living American archetype: the genius tinkerer.

There's no counting the number of college students, frantic parents, terminal bachelors and other harried souls who have Gagliardi to thank for their sustenance. After all, he invented Steak-umm, that frozen beef sliced thin as a Visa card that cooks in a few blinks.

And who knows how many rushing motorists have praised in their hearts the creator of KFC's Popcorn Chicken - at long last a fried chicken that can be eaten at 60 miles per hour?

Gagliardi again.

And again, if you consider Hot Thighs, which strutted out some years ago at Hooters as a spicy alternative to the Buffalo chicken wing. Meatpackers, too, might praise Gagliardi for his role in creating new beef shoulder cuts, transforming meat that would otherwise become hamburger into more profitable London broil and sirloin tips.

"I was always different, I was always trying to find a different way," says Gagliardi, by way of explaining something of what he's been doing since his first experiments at his father's West Philadelphia butcher shop in the 1950s.

Gagliardi gave up a measure of his distinctiveness just weeks ago, when he ceased to be one of a dwindling number of independent innovators in the food business. While he'll continue to work much as he has in the past, he sold his company, Visionary Design in Atglen, Pa., and all his patents to Packerland Packing Co. Inc., a Wisconsin-based beef division of the industry giant Smithfield Foods Inc.

"I wanted the opportunity to work for one company and put my efforts in one direction," says Gagliardi, adding that the big company's money and access to a wider range of markets could cut the time it takes to put his creations into consumers' hands. Aside from Gagliardi, Visionary Design has two employees.

"When you have a big company behind you, things can happen faster," says Gagliardi, who cannot disclose the amount of the Packerland deal, but says it's been in the works for a few months.

In a statement released by Smithfield's public-relations department, Packerland president Rich Vesta says Gagliardi has been "an innovator and a pioneer in the meat industry for his entire career. ... We hope to turn his wealth of ideas into new products for our customers."

Gagliardi will continue with current projects, which typify the sort of stuff from which he's built a national reputation.

Mark W. Thomas, vice president of consumer marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says he considers Gagliardi a "creative genius," not least for his fresh ways of looking at the same old carcass.

Thomas Slaughter, who owns a clam-processing plant and product-development company in New Bedford, Mass., is working with Gagliardi now on a number of new items using reconstituted seafood. He refers to Gagliardi as "one of the most brilliant people in protein in the country."

Gagliardi in striking ways has been "in protein." He's been in it up to his elbows.

He has sliced it, chopped it, ground it, filleted it, finding that this would not quite do. He has pushed protein beyond recognition and pulled it back again. For example, Steak-umm.

What is this stuff, anyway?

If you saw it in the raw mass, in the blocks from which the slices are cut, "You wouldn't know it was meat. You'd think it was red dough," says Gagliardi.

Similar to hamburger meat yet smoother, more even in color and consistency, the stuff has been sliced fine enough and mixed at just the right temperature so that the muscle proteins bind to each other without additives. Chopped to a fare-thee-well, the meat nevertheless holds together.

Into one end of the hopper goes beef, with its fat, its gristle, with much of the stuff that can ruin the experience of eating a Philly cheese-steak sandwich. Out the other end comes a "steak," approximating the look of a whole muscle, yet it can be bitten as neatly, chewed as evenly as a slice of Swiss cheese.

A technician at a New Jersey radio station once told Gagliardi how Steak-umm kept him going in college where cooking was forbidden in the dorm. Absent a stove, though, how exactly had the young man prepared the meat?

"He said, `I put it between foil and ironed it,' " Gagliardi recalls.

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