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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PB&J: Every American Kid’s Favorite Sandwich

The peanut is thought to have originated in Brazil and Central America, making its way to Africa by means of Spanish explorers and traders. When African slaves were brought to United States, the peanut arrived with them. In fact, the name “goober,” as they are called in the southern states, comes directly from the African word “nguba.”

Peanuts were first grown commercially in the early 1800s in North Carolina and Virginia, but the first notable consumption didn’t occur until the outbreak of the Civil War where they were used as food by soldiers on both sides. By the last half of the century, peanuts were a popular snack sold by street vendors, at baseball games, and circuses.

Contrary to what some believe, it was not George Washington Carver that invented peanut butter. While Dr. Carver discovered more than three hundred uses for this popular legume, the precursor to peanut butter as we know it today got its beginning in 1884 when Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada was issued a patent for the finished product of his method of milling roasted peanuts.

At first, peanut butter was hand made by some physicians as an alternative high protein food for geriatric patients with bad or no teeth. In 1895, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of the Kellogg cereal fame) patented his own method of creating peanut butter using steamed nuts, which he served to patients of his Battle Creek Sanitarium. The next year, Joseph Lambert, an employee of Dr. Kellogg, began making and selling a hand-operated peanut grinder to housewives who wanted to make peanut butter for their own families. Three years later his wife, Almeeta, published The Complete Guide to Nut Cookery, America’s first nut cookbook.

Then in 1903, Dr. Ambrose Straub of St. Louis patented a peanut butter-making machine. Later that year, Bayle Food Products bought the commercial rights to Dr. Straub’s process and in 1904 introduced their new product to visitors of the St. Louis World Fair. Selling samples for one penny each, Bayle Foods sold out in just three days earning $705 and put them on the path to becoming Americas first peanut butter vendor. Soon peanut butter was available at grocers all across the country.

The first known reference to the traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich was published in an article by Julia Davis Chandler in the Boston Cooking School of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics in 1901. At that time, peanut butter was considered a delicacy enjoyed by aristocrats in America’s finest tearooms and upscale affairs in some rather exotic ways–peanut butter and watercress; peanut butter and pimento; peanut butter spiced with paprika and Worcestershire sauce.

By 1914 there were a number of companies making peanut butter, including Krema Products Company in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest peanut butter company still in operation today.

With the continued commercialization of the peanut butter industry came a sweeter, creamier product at a price that made it affordable to just about everyone. This, along with the invention of sliced bread by the 1920s, provided children the ability to make peanut butter sandwiches themselves. Originally peanut butter sandwiches were extremely adventuresome, as evidenced by the following sampling of recipes from Florence A. Cowles’ 1928 book, Seven Hundred Sandwiches:

Peanut and Pimento Sandwich
Peanut and Celery Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Cabbage Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Orange Sandwich (orange juice and peel)
Peanut Butter amd Marshmallow Sandwich
Peanutpine Sandwich (peanut butter, honey, walnuts, lettuce, pineapple)
Peanut Butter and Ham Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Tomato Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Pickle Sandwich
Pimcel Sandwich (celery, pimento, salad dressing, salt, and paprika)
Peanut Butter and Ginger Sandwich
Egg and Peanut Butter Sandwich
Dixieland Sandwich (roasted peanuts, fried bacon, pimentos, and salad dressing)
Peanut and Lettuce Sandwich
Southern Sandwich (tomatoes, mayonnaise, and salted peanuts on whole wheat)
Peanut Butter and Olive Sandwich (with mayo on white or rye)

There were also several sandwiches made with peanut butter and fruits ranging from apples, raisins, and prunes to bananas and cherries. There were peanut butter sandwiches with honey and maple syrup and, of course, various jams.

Despite its popularity, early peanut butters had freshness problems. Since peanut oil has an extremely low melting point, peanut butter kept at room temperature would separate, oxidize and turn rancid. Also, salt added to the product to enhance flavor would separate and crystallize. Therefore, peanut butter, which was sold to grocers in tubs, had to be stirred frequently to prevent the problem.

During the 1920s, Joseph L. Rosefield, a food businessman and industry innovator, began experimenting with ways of preventing oil separation and spoilage. He found that replacing eighteen percent of the product’s natural oil with hydrogenated oil allowed for a thicker, more creamy peanut butter that didn’t separate. It also did not stick to the roof of the mouth as badly as previous products. By 1932, he introduced “Skippy” brand peanut butter, named after a children’s comic strip. Three years later, his company came out with the first wide-mouth peanut butter jar, which too became a standard with the industry.

During World War II, peanut butter and jelly were part of U.S. soldiers’ rations. On the homefront, food rationing was commonplace during the War with meats and dairy products scarce and expensive. Peanut butter on the other hand was a cheap, readily available source of protein, just as during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Not only has the salty-sweet flavor of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches become a mainstay of the American diet for the past sixty years, for many people, its preparation has become a sacred ritual–the kind of bread, jelly, or jam that is used (grape is the number one choice), even the way it is cut (40% diagonal, 31% horizontal). Twenty-five percent don’t cut their sandwich as all, and another one in four have to have the crust removed.

Any way you slice it, the average child in America will consume 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he or she graduates high school making it America’s most popular children’s sandwich.

Find Em: Peanut Butter & Company, New York, New York; Peanut Butter Bar, Los Angeles, California; The PB&J Shop, Louisville, Kentucky

Make Em: The Elvis PB & J, Krispy Kreme Bacon Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich, Peanut Butter & Jelly Flautas