Sloppy Joes: It's what's for dinner

  • Article by: GRETCHEN MCKAY , Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • Updated: January 22, 2014 - 2:18 PM

Once a staple on lunchroom trays, the loose-meat sandwich is poised for a comeback.

Asian Sloppy Joe Sliders offer a flavor twist to the traditional sloppy Joe recipe.

Photo: Photos by Gretchen McKay • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,

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Love ’em or hate ’em, the messy chopped meat and tomato sauce sandwich — I dare you to try eating one without staining your shirt — is for many an iconic lunch food of childhood.

I grew up in the Manwich era, so forgive me if I wasn’t always a fan of the sloppy Joe. I always found the canned sauce, introduced by Hunt’s in 1969, a bit too sweet and soupy — more like an unsuccessful marriage of barbecue sauce and ketchup than the slightly tangy, slightly spicy sauce that the kitchen gods intended.

But I could be in the minority: The sandwich is so beloved that it merits its own National Food Holiday (March 18), and last year ConAgra sold more than 70 million cans of Manwich.

But a homemade Joe? That can be a beautiful thing, not to mention a quick and easy way to get a filling (and inexpensive) dinner on the table.

The origin of the sloppy Joe sandwich is almost as messy as the dish itself. Some food historians believe the lunchroom staple is as American as apple pie.

Noting that “similar beef concoctions” have graced the pages of cookbooks since the turn of the 12th century, “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America” reports it may have evolved from a popular dish first served in Muscatine, Iowa, during President Calvin Coolidge’s administration.

In 1926, a butcher by the name of Floyd Angell opened Maid-Rite, a walk-up eatery that eventually would become a chain of restaurants specializing in loose meat sandwiches. Also known as a Tavern or a Tastee, the Maid-Rite was made from steamed, lightly seasoned ground beef served on a warm bun.

Others, however, insist the sandwich was inspired by two famous restaurants named Sloppy Joe’s Bar — one in Havana, Cuba, owned by Jose Garcia, and another in Key West, Fla., that was a favorite haunt of novelist Ernest Hemingway.

“The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink” dates the sandwich to about 1935, but can’t pinpoint its exact birth:

“There is probably no Joe after whom it is named — but its rather messy appearance and tendency to drip off plate or roll makes ‘sloppy’ an adequate description and Joe is an American name of proletarian character with unassailable genuineness.”

Or perhaps the messy-to-eat sandwich was simply named after the type of restaurants that commonly served it. In the 1940s, any inexpensive eatery or lunch counter serving cheap food was known as a “Sloppy Joe.”

However the sandwich came to be, by the late 1930s it was a popular dish on dinner tables nationwide because it helped home cooks stretch scant meat supplies during the Great Depression and World War II. The dish even was mentioned in several 1940s movies, including “Citizen Kane.”

The first printed recipe that officially dubbed the hamburger dish “sloppy Joe” was in 1963, in the “McCall’s Cook Book.” It called for sautéing a half-pound of ground beef in a skillet until it “loses its red color,” and then adding a can of beans in barbecue sauce and ¼ cup ketchup. The simmered mixture was served on toasted hamburger buns.

For people who don’t like to cook or think they’re too busy, there’s always Hunt’s Manwich sauces, of course, which now come in three flavors.

But really, wouldn’t that be a mistake when the real deal is so easy to prepare?

You’re going to be browning ground beef (or turkey or pork) anyway, so why not give the sandwich a nutritional boost with fresh veggies and seasonings?

It’s so much better tasting, and not that much harder. Your kids might even enjoy doing the mixing and chopping.

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