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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Southern Fried Chicken: America’s Ultimate Comfort Food. And Mine.

Log_House_Restaurant_2

As I’ve mentioned before, ours was a family of modest means. But my father worked hard to see that we were able to afford some of life’s nicer things. An occasional dinner at the “Log House” after Sunday’s church service was one of the more pleasurable of them. And one of my life experiences I will likely never forget.

The Log House, as the name implies, was a real log cabin in which a popular restaurant was housed. It was unique, affordable, and located right on the way home from our house of worship. But best of all, this restaurant specialized in southern fried chicken–one of my family’s favorite meals.

My mother always ordered first. Two pieces of dark meat for herself; a drumstick for my sister; a chicken breast for me. Then my father would order the three-piece white chicken dinner for himself–“extra crispy”, with mashed potatoes and green beans. Afterwards, looking our server in the eye while putting togetherfried chicken dinner the thumbs and index fingers of both hands to demonstrate the size, he would add “with a little bowl of cream gravy.” After the waitress left to fetch our meal, my mom would exclaim, “Albert, why do you always do that? You know it comes with a side of gravy.” And with a slight look of exasperation on his face he would calmly answer, “I know, I know. I just don’t want her to forget.”

Now for those of you not familiar with southern fried chicken (and I’m not sure who that could possibly be) the following paragraphs will attempt to clarify what it is, its origin, and perhaps a few other interesting facts.

fried-chicken-basket

Simply put, southern fried chicken consists of a young hen that has been cut up–usually into eight pieces–dredged first in buttermilk, then in well seasoned flour, and fried in lard (or some other fat) in a cast iron skillet, rendering the exterior with a crispy outer shell that keeps the meat juicy and tender. And while this may sound straightforward enough, making great fried chicken is an art mastered by only a few, and then only after months, sometimes years, of practice, trial, and error. It is also worth noting that the term “southern fried” is a relatively recent term, not appearing in print until 1925.

While fried chicken was not particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century, it is certainly a traditional southern meal and among the region’s most well known exports. But the dish is not indigenous to the South. Actually, most food historians credit Scottish immigrants–who preferred frying their chicken over baking or boiling, as did other Europeans–with first introducing the dish to Southern colonies as they migrated here in the mid eighteenth century. And while the Scots may have brought fried chicken to America, it was West Africans, brought here as slaves, that helped make it a southern staple.

Fried chicken is known to have been a common part of many West African cuisines. As the slave trade led to Africans being brought to work on southern plantations, those whose job it was to cook for the owners brought with them spices and seasonings that greatly enhanced the flavors of Scottish fried chicken recipes. Fried chicken was also well suited for plantation life, as it provided cheap but nutritious sustenance for both owners and slaves alike. And chickens were about the only meat African American slaves were allowed to raise.

Gordonville VA chicken vendors

As the American Civil War began to wind down and it became necessary for former slaves to create new lives for themselves, some turned to trades learned during slavery. But one group of African American women from the town of Gordonsville, Virginia turned to fried chicken as a means of providing a living for themselves and their families, earning the name “Chicken Vendors” along the way.

It seems Gordonsville was an important train junction for the Confederacy and, as such, highly defended during the Civil War, surviving virtually unscathed. When the war ended in 1865, passenger service was restored quickly. But trains at that time had no dining cars, and passengers had no choice but to eat at trackside establishments. The Chicken Vendors greeted the waiting rail cars with trays of fried chicken and baskets of rolls, selling wares to passengers through open windows–legs and breast was fifteen cents; backs and wings, five and ten cents. This practice continued until the mid-1900s when health regulations forced it to stop.

By the end of the nineteenth century the popularity of fried chicken in the South had grown to become the region’s top choice for Sunday dinner and special occasions among both blacks and whites. Today fried chicken, like America itself, has taken on a new look. Modern, forward thinking chefs craft versions of this classic dish never before fathomed and certainly a far cry from Southern Fried Chicken 002that first recipe published by Mary Randolph in her 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-Wife. And although good fried chicken can be found in just about every state in the country, great fried chicken can, at least in my mind, only be found in the South. Places like Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, or the Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta.

So while the Log House Restaurant burned down many years ago, those childhood after-church Sunday dinners and my father’s “little bowl of cream gravy” will forever be etched in my memory. And the taste of fried chicken forever on my tongue.

Try Em: Charles’ Country Pan Fried Country, Harlem, NY; Mama Dip’s Kitchen, Chapel Hill, NC; Coop’s Place, New Orleans, LA; Harold’s Chicken Shack, Chicago, IL; Stroud’s, Kansas City, MO; Arnold’s Country Chicken, Nashville, TN; Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke, TX

Make Em: Grandma’s Fried Chicken, Paula’s Spicy Southern Fried Chicken