Everyone has a tale about what the lunch ladies ladled up in the school cafeteria: Chicken nuggets so rubbery you swear they’d bounce if you threw one on the floor. Mystery-meat tacos. The dreaded (in our house, anyway) Brunch for Lunch. And, of course, greasy, tomato-y, oozing-from-the-bun sloppy Joe sandwiches.
Love ’em or hate ’em, the messy chopped meat and tomato sauce sandwich – I dare you to try eating one of those babies without staining your fingers or shirt – are for many an iconic lunch food of childhood. For meat eaters of a certain age, they also showed up fairly often on the dinner table at home, usually with tater tots and sometimes an iceberg-lettuce salad, if my mom was feeling especially fancy.
I grew up in the Manwich era, so forgive me if I wasn’t always a fan of the sloppy Joe. I 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). I don’t think everyone who celebrates is cooking from scratch: ConAgra sold more than 70 million cans of Manwich last year.
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.
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The origins of the sloppy Joe sandwich is almost as messy as the dish itself, in that nobody knows for sure where or how it arrived on American tables. Some food historians believe the lunchroom staple – typically made with ground meat, tomato sauce or ketchup, onions and spices and served on a toasted hamburger bun – 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 the 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 across the United States because it helped home cooks stretch scant meat supplies during the Great Depression and World War II. So many of our relatives ate so many sloppy Joes that 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 sauteing 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 1/4 cup catsup. The simmered mixture was served on toasted hamburger buns.
Skillet-cooked, hamburger-based sloppy Joes remain the American standard, though sometimes the dish is known by another name. In Rhode Island, where the tomato-y meat mixture is served on a torpedo roll, it’s called a dynamite sandwich; you’ll also find the sandwich described on menus as the yum yum, slush burger, spoonburger or, when it’s made with turkey or some sort of vegetable protein, a sloppy Jane or sloppy Tom. The New Jersey Sloppy Joe is something altogether different – a cold, triple-decker deli sandwich made with sliced meat (usually turkey or pastrami), Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing.
For people who don’t like or think they’re too busy to cook, there’s always Hunt’s Manwich sauces, of course, which now come in Bold and Thick & Chunky flavors in addition to the 1960s original. If you absolutely, positively don’t want to lift a finger except to push the microwave “on” button, there’s also a pre-mixed, pre-cooked Manwich product that comes in a heatable plastic container. (A lunch lady hairnet to wear while serving it is optional.)
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.
Another plus to cooking your sloppies from scratch: If you’re willing to be just a bit adventurous with the meat and seasonings, you’ll create a dish that will become legendary in your kids’ minds for all the right reasons.
Below, we offer a variety of sloppy Joe recipes that, if they were served in the school cafeteria, would make you think twice about brown-bagging it.