Sloppy Joe. American’s Quintessential Loose Meat Sandwich

I guess I was a young teenager when I first heard of a sloppy joe. I remember the sandwich being served for lunch in my junior high (known today as middle school) cafeteria. But since I brown-bagged my lunch in those days, it was a year or two later before I actually ate one.

One day while hanging out at my childhood best friend Billy’s house, his mother invited me to share lunch. Eating at Billy’s house was always special, not because his mom was a better cook than mine but because she prepared dishes my mom didn’t. I eagerly accepted. Right there at an old picnic table in Billy’s back yard I had my first sloppy joe.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a zealous hamburger fan that I cannot really appreciate the concept. For whatever reason, I was totally unimpressed then by the sloppy joe and remain of the same mind today.

The sloppy joe began making its appearance in food columns, advertisements, and cookbooks in the early 1940s. In the October 29, 1944 issue of the Coshocton (Ohio) Tribune, The Hamburg Shop advertised among its offerings a new sandwich–the Sloppy Joe for ten-cents. By the 1950s this sandwich, consisting of ground beef, onions, Worcestershire, ketchup or tomato sauce and various seasons served on a bun, had become a lunch counter and school cafeteria staple.

The popularity of this economical sandwich continued to grow so much that in 1969 Hunt’s, a ConAgra company, introduced Manwich Sauce to the American consumer. A pound of cooked ground beef and a can of Manwich enabled every housewife to make delicious sloppy joe’s for their family. Hunt’s marketed Manwich with the slogan, “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal.”

Over time, the exact genesis of this American sandwich has been lost. Some say it was the creation of José Abeal y Otero, owner of a Havana bar. Others credit the Silver Slipper (renamed Sloppy Joe’s) owner Joe Russell in Key West. Still another theory is that in the 1930s an Iowa cook named Joe at one of Fred Angell’s Maid-Rite restaurants came up with the concept.

Conjecture on how the sloppy joe got its name is as varied as that of who invented the sandwich itself. Was it named after the Maid-Rite cook who is said to have created it, or after the Havana and Key West bars of the same name? Another story attributes the name to one of Angell’s customers whose name was Joe, after eating one of the messy sandwiches.

One thing in which almost every food historian agrees is that the precursor of the sloppy joe was the “loose meat sandwich,” also known as a steamer or tavern sandwich. The loose meat sandwich, originating in the 1920s at Ye Olde Tavern in Sioux City, Ohio, was nothing more than crumbled ground beef with seasonings served on a bun with mustard and pickles.

Some of you may remember the loose meat sandwich served at the fictional Lanford Lunchbox on the 1992 Roseanne television sit-com. It is said the inspiration for the Lunchbox was a real-life restaurant called Canteen Lunch in the Alley in Ottumwa, Ohio. Roseanne’s then-husband and co-star Tom Arnold is from Ottumwa.

Sloppy joe’s are often referred to by various names depending on what region of the U.S. you’re in. Some of those names include: barbecues, dynamites, slushburgers, steamers, and yum-yums. And while usually made with ground beef, some variations include ground chicken, turkey, pork, and even a combination of meats. Vegetarians also enjoy sloppy joe’s by substituting vegetable protein for the meat.

In northern New Jersey, a completely different sandwich emerges. In 1936, the Town Deli in Orange, New Jersey added to its menu the Original Sloppy Joe, a double-decker deli sandwich consisting of cow tongue, ham, and Swiss cheese on thin rye bread, topped with cold slaw and lots of Russian dressing. This infamous State favorite is still available at the Town Deli, along with ten Joe Sandwich variations.

Today the Sloppy Joe remains a popular sandwich, especially in schools, retirement communities, and diners all across this great nation. Several other countries have similar culinary creations. For example in China, roujiamo is a popular street food consisting of stewed pork combined with over 20 herbs and spices served in mo, a type of flatbread, or on a steamed bun. In India, a pav bread roll filled with keema, a mixture stewed and curried lamb or mutton with potatoes and peas.

If you’ve never eaten a sloppy joe I encourage you to try one. I’ve included a recipe for the classic version, or you can pick up a can of Manwich at your local supermarket and follow the instructions on the can. Either will provide a fast, economical meal, and you may very well become a loyal sloppy joe fan. As for me, my undying loyalty will remain with the all-American hamburger.

Make Em: Classic Sloppy Joes

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Dairy Queen: A Small-Town Texas Icon

Seventy-seven years of Dairy Queen highlights:

1940: First Dairy Queen store opens in Joliet, Illinois.
1949: DQ introduces malts and shakes.
1951: Banana splits appear on the menu.
1953: First DQ store opens in Canada.
1955: Dilly Bar debuts.
1957: Dairy Queen/Brazier concept is introduced.
1958: Dairy Queen/Brazier food products introduced.
1961: Mr. Misty slush treat cools throats in the warm South.
1962: International Dairy Queen, Inc. (IDQ) is formed.
1965: First national radio advertising sends DQ message 169 million times a week.
1966: First national TV commercial, “Live a Little,” is aired.
1968: Buster Bar Treat is introduced.
1972: First DQ store opens in Japan.
1973: Say the word “Scrumpdillyishus!” and get a Peanut Buster Parfait for 49 cents.
1979: The DQ system debuts in the Middle East.
1980: “We Treat You Right” tagline debuts.
1985: Over 175 million Blizzard Treats sold in its first year.
1989: Dairy Queen ranked America’s #1 treat chain.
1991: First DQ store opens in Mexico.
1995: DQ Treatzza Pizza and Chicken Strip Basket debut.
1999: Pecan Mudslide Treat is introduced.
1999: A DQ operator in Massachusetts builds the world’s largest Blizzard Treat, weighing in at 5,316.6 pounds.
2001: Crispy Chicken Salad is introduced.
2001: The first DQ Grill & Chill restaurant opens in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
2002: Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, becomes manager of a DQ location in Texas for the day.
2003: The Blizzard of the Month program kicks off.
2004: The MooLatte Frozen Coffee Flavored Beverage line debuts in mocha, vanilla and caramel flavors.
2004: Award-winning Dairy Queen commercials can be seen throughout the country in the system’s first full year of national advertising.
2005: GrillBurgers are introduced on national TV.
2005: A new World’s Largest Blizzard record is set when a new 22 foot tall Treat is built weighing 8,224.85 pounds in Springfield, Massachusetts.

When I was a young boy growing up in North Texas in the early 50s, Interstate highways didn’t exist. In fact, I’m not sure if the two-lane roads of the time could even be considered a highway, at least not by today’s standards. So when my parents, sister and I made the three and a half hour trip to my birthplace in southeastern Oklahoma, we drove through a number of small Texas towns–Melissa (pop 405), Anna (pop 520), Howe (pop 680), to name a few. I was always amazed that each and every one of those towns, no matter how small, had at least one Dairy Queen.

Always located close to the town’s edge, the local Dairy Queen, also referred to as “DQ” by many, seemed not only to be a popular eatery (in some cases the only eatery) but the community’s social center as well. You may not have been able to find a public library, or even a city hall in many of these towns, but everyone knew how to find the local Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen got its start in 1938 in an ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois owned by Sherb Noble. It seems his good friend John “Grandpa” McCullough and McCullough’s son Alex convinced Sherb to begin offering his customers the soft-serve ice cream they had formulated. After selling more than 1,600 servings in just two hours the trio knew they were on to something big, so two years later, on June 22, 1940, the three friends opened the first Dairy Queen on 501 North Chicago Street in Joliet, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. And although that Dairy Queen closed for business in the 1950s, the building still stands as a city designated historic landmark.

The name Dairy Queen was derived from the phrase “the queen among dairy products” used by Grandpa McCullough in describing his ice cream. While the McCullough’s may or may not have invented soft-serve ice cream (some say that honor belongs to Tom Carvel), their proprietary recipe for it has always been a highly guarded trade secret known only by a trusted few.

While there are more than 4,500 DQ stores in the continental U.S., Texas is home to more Dairy Queens than any other state. All 593 stores in the Lone Star State are owned and operated by franchisees, a group of independent operators so large and with so much leverage they have their own Operator’s Council (TDQOC), host a separate marketing website from the national organization, and even maintain their own menu.

Yes, Texas Dairy Queens’ menu has food offerings not found in other U.S. locations. Branded as Texas Country Foods, some of the unique items you’ll find only at Texas DQ’s include “Hungr-Buster” burgers, the “Dude” chicken-fried steak sandwich and steak finger baskets, T-Brand tacos, and the “BeltBuster” half-pound double meat hamburger.

The first Dairy Queen in Texas opened its doors May 31, 1950 on U.S. Highway 259 in Henderson, a small East Texas city (pop 6,800) in the midst of an oil boom. Today this DQ holds the title of the oldest continuously operated Dairy Queen in Texas with almost seven decades of providing patrons courteous, efficient service and soft-serve ice cream, shakes, burgers and fries.

Although the Dairy Queen system has had many changes throughout the years, one constant has remained. DQ’s have always been and will continue to be the place where local sports teams celebrate their victories, business people go on their lunch breaks and families enjoy great food and soft-serve treats. In fact, Dairy Queen is the largest seller of soft frozen desserts in the world.

It’s been more than 50 years since those childhood trips to Oklahoma. Many of the small towns we used to drive through have all but died since being bypassed by the new super highways. As for myself, I prefer the nostalgia of driving the back roads. I enjoy the slower pace, the old turn-of-the-century buildings, and the friendly people. Most of all I enjoy stopping for a burger with extra onions, fries, and a soft-serve chocolate shake at the local Dairy Queen.