Ham barbecue: A quintessential Pittsburgh food that is neither ham nor barbecue.
Not ham in the traditional sense, anyhow. Sure, its original source is the pig, but who knows how many twists and turns the meat takes before it comes out in a pressed rectangular loaf that is then "chipped," or "chipped chopped," as we say in Da 'Burgh.
And it's not barbecue -- it doesn't involve briquettes or grills, and it doesn't even require long hours of cooking, although we were surprised to discover that some readers leave their ham barbecue on the stove burner for two hours or more. I always figured long heat exposure would turn the stuff into a slimy mess, although I suppose you could argue that it's a slimy mess to begin with.
Recently, we asked readers to submit their favorite recipes, secret ingredients and general comments about chipped ham barbecue.
Outside Pittsburgh, the stuff is a mystery. An old friend from my Grove City College days still, with her family, enjoys an annual reunion with several other couples from college. One of the wives, a native Pittsburgher, always whips up a pot of chipped ham barbecue for the crowd. Hailing from elsewhere, my friend had spent the 15-plus years since we graduated wondering what on Earth this stuff was. She saw the recipe solicitation in my column and finally solved the mystery.
"I was always like, 'What in the heck?' " my friend said. She had no idea it was a Pittsburgh tradition.
But that's not to say everyone makes it the same way.
Call it un-Pittsburghlike, but I didn't realize ham barbecue sandwiches used to be made in Isaly's stores. You could go in and order one to eat on the premises. Or so I'm told by readers who used to do this. So I guess there is an "authentic" ham barbecue recipe somewhere in the catacombs of Isaly's. To this day, some readers simply use "Isaly's Original Chipped Chopped Ham," as it's called, and Isaly's barbecue sauce, both of which still are sold at Penn Mac in the Strip, McGinnis Sisters stores and other local supermarkets (check isalys.com for information).
But home-cooked variations of chipped ham barbecue are as endless as the Steelers nation. Readers sent us 49 recipes, each a little different.
A few readers simply empty a bottle of chili sauce into a pan, fill the bottle with ginger ale and add that to the pan, and then stir in some chipped ham -- and either stop there or add onion flakes, pickle relish or other ingredients.
Some folks, such as Melanie Holmes-Popovich of Bethel Park, start off by frying some finely chopped veggies (in her case, green pepper, onion and celery, although most folks don't use the pepper) in a little butter before adding the remaining ingredients. Some readers also use pickle relish, while others would eschew chunky stuff of any variety in their sandwiches.
Some readers' special ingredients might come as a surprise:
• Garlic cloves and tomato soup (Elaine Chegas of Ross).
• Stewed tomatoes (Stephen Wahal, Donora).
• Homemade barbecue sauce spiced with cinnamon and ground cloves (Barbara Brooks, Crafton).
• Mustard seed (Anne Nevin, Murrysville).
• Root beer (Gary Bombassaro, Crafton Heights).
• Zucchini relish (Barbara Lanke, Ross).
• Horseradish (Cecily Franklin, O'Hara).
• Mint ginger ale (Rosalie Dougherty, Carrick).
• Eggs, used as a sauce thickener (Shirley Hood, Ambridge).
Some recipes almost sound like cheeseburgers. Lynda Slack of White Oak, for instance, uses ketchup, yellow mustard and sweet relish.
Many readers insisted not only on Pittsburgh-style chipped ham, but also on other Pittsburgh ingredients: Heinz ketchup (no impostors), Heinz chili sauce, Mancini's buns.
Two of the simplest recipes we saw came from Dolores Stofko of North Strabane and Jill Holtzman of White Oak. Ms. Stofko doesn't measure, just eyeballs, so you'll have to guess how much of each ingredient to use, but here's how she does it: Put some chipped ham in a skillet with a little water and heat it up, add some Heinz ketchup and stir until hot, then add a little relish before serving on a warm bun.
Ms. Holtzman fries chipped ham in a skillet until it's brown and crispy and then adds barbecue sauce and Heinz ketchup. She's one of the few readers who browns her ham first.
The strangest recipe we received was sent in by Shirley Fillgrove of Butler. Her family makes chipped ham barbecue sandwiches with both ham and ground beef (see recipe).
Many readers shared recipes that had been in their families for 40 to 50 years or more. The recipe with the longest lifespan was submitted by Bonnie Getkin of Franklin Park, who said her traditional concoction of onion, ketchup, brown sugar, dry mustard, chili sauce, water and chipped ham had been in her family for more than 60 years.
The recipes may differ, but what unites readers is the passion they share for this Pittsburgh staff of life. Former South Sider Christine Novak of Duluth, Ga., wasn't able to make chipped ham barbecue for years because "they don't sell and don't know what 'chipped' ham is here in the South," she lamented.
But that all changed when she checked Penn Mac's website and found the old, original chipped ham available for shipping.
"I now get a supply of 'chipped' ham and other Pittsburgh staples shipped here every couple months, so my husband, daughter and I have our chipped ham BBQ fix!" she said.
For Ms. Brooks, chipped ham barbecue brings back childhood memories: "There was nothing like the smell of ham BBQ sandwiches and fresh corn on the cob from the garden to make us kids come into the house from playing outside."
Chipped ham barbecue
With 49 recipes to choose from, it was hard to decide on just a couple to run in the paper. We settled on one traditional (below) and one unusual (see the chipped ham/ground beef recipe). We chose this recipe as the traditional representative because it contains both chili sauce and ketchup -- most readers considered at least one of those ingredients, if not both, essential. Also, we took some readers' tack and added about 2 tablespoons of brown sugar to Ms. Russ' recipe.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Small onion, chopped
- 3 stalks celery, chopped
- 1 bottle Heinz chili sauce
- 1 1/2 Heinz chili sauce bottle's water
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1/4 tablespoon prepared mustard
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 1/2 pounds chipped ham
Melt butter in skillet, add onion and celery and cook until softened. Add remaining ingredients (except chipped ham) and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add chipped ham, stir until hot and serve on sandwich buns.
-- Pat Russ, Ross
Chipped ham/ground beef barbecue
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup chopped onions
- 1 cup ketchup
- Scant 1/2 cup water
- Scant 1/4 cup vinegar
- A little cooking wine
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoons mustard
- 1 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 pound chipped ham
- Salt and pepper to taste
Brown ground beef in butter. Add the remaining ingredients (except chipped ham) and simmer 20 minutes. Place chipped ham in sauce and simmer another 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
-- Shirley Fillgrove, Butlerfood - recipes
Rebecca Sodergren writes The Food Column: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @pgfoodevents.