The Origin of the Sloppy Joe
There’s nothing complicated about a Sloppy Joe.
At its most basic, the Joe is a sandwich made with ground beef and a tomato sauce. The Sloppy Joe’s history, however, is a bit more complex.
Some attribute the original Sloppy Joe to a cafe in Sioux City, Iowa, where, many years ago, in 1930 a cook named Joe added tomato sauce to his “loose meat” sandwiches. Voila: a new between-the-bread offering, and the sandwich’s official name. (Loose meat sandwiches continue to be a staple in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest.)
Others say that the original sandwich was born at the iconic restaurant in Key West, Florida, Sloppy Joe’s Bar.
And then there are those who say that the concept of the sandwich was dreamt up in Havana of all places, at Sloppy Joe’s saloon, which recently re-opened after a half-century hiatus (!).
But while people may contest where the “official” Sloppy Joe was born, the concept of mixing meat, cheese, and bread is so simple that it’s no surprise that Sloppy Joe soon it became an American favorite.
Loose meat sandwiches
Let’s start at the origin: the loose meat sandwich.
And the origin of that Midwestern delicacy? Well, as ground beef gained popularity in the 19th century, it became renowned as a nourishing and economical food option: it delivered lots of protein for your money. Fillers (like bread crumbs, ketchup, tomato paste, cheese, etc.) were often added to stretch the meat and the ground beef mixture was then turned into things like meatballs, meatloaves and stews. The loose meat sandwich was just another way of using that meat in a creative manner, one that stretched the meat even further because of the carb-filled bun.
While the name leaves something to be desired, in the Midwest loose meat sandwiches are very much a culinary tradition, particularly in Iowa. If you watched the sitcom Roseanne in the late 1980s and early 90s you may remember the loose meat sandwiches that were served up at the Lanford Lunchbox.
Sloppy Joe’s: A Cuban Specialty?
If there’s one restaurant that has become synonymous with the sandwich, it’s Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida, which opened on December 5, 1933—the day Prohibition was repealed.
Originally launched under a different name, it was none other than Ernest Hemingway who encouraged rebranding the bar as Sloppy Joe’s. But it had nothing to do with a sandwich. Nope, the name was adopted from Jose Garcia Rios’ Havana Club, which sold liquor and iced seafood.
“Because the floor was always wet with melted ice, his patrons taunted this Spanish Joe with running a “sloppy” place,” said Donna Edwards, Sloppy Joe’s Brand Manager. “The name stuck.”
But why do so many people order Sloppy Joes at Sloppy Joe’s? While some say we have that chef back in Sioux City to thank for it, we can’t forget about the Cuban connection.
“A loose beef sandwich was on the menu at the original Sloppy Joe’s in Havana,” confirmed Edwards.
Either way, the Key West version of Sloppy Joe’s has been serving the sandwich since the beginning, Today, the joint sells more than 50,000 Sloppy Joes a year.
Manwich, slush burger, yum yums, dynamite, spoonburgers, tavern sandwich; a Sloppy Joe can be called by many other names. The most well-known however is Manwich. Much as we’d like this to constitute a reference to the SJ being a man’s favorite sandwich, this nickname derives from a brand of canned Sloppy Joe sauce that was launched by ConAgra Foods and Hunt’s in 1969.
Marketed with the slogan “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a manwich is a meal,” it’s no surprise that this one-pan meal became so popular during the 1970s and 80s, and for many years, Americans made their Sloppy Joes straight out of a can.
Sloppy Joe Goes to School
Just like people in the early 20th century saw cooking with ground beef as a smart economical choice when it came to nourishing food, school cafeterias embraced the Sloppy Joe even more firmly than the patrons in Key West. Why? A question of value and nutrition. And so, the messy sandwich got a bad reputation as cafeteria food.
“I think the origination of placing Sloppy Joes on school menus likely came from a need for a fulfilling a hearty meal with a minimal cost,” says Robert Jaber, Director of Office of Food and Nutrition Services for District of Columbia Public Schools. “The Sloppy Joe, if served properly, can be the perfect combination of economics, nutrition, heartiness, and student acceptance – it’s a perfect fit for a school menu.”
But as we all know, it’s rare that kids care about money and nutrition; they just want to eat, which means that ultimately, the popularity of Sloppy Joes is all about taste. “It’s funny—It must just be the mixture of spices and sauce which people love,” says Margo Livingston, Kitchen Manager of Stonepark Intermediate School in Charlottetown, Canada, adding that “with Sloppy Joes you can throw some veggies in there and they don’t know the difference.” As Jaber adds, they’re also “a comfort food, especially in the colder months,” which might be why so many of us have childhood memories of the sandwich.
Sloppy Joe Variations to Make On Your Own
As a comfort food, Sloppy Joes are certainly a staple, and while we most often think of them as a cafeteria food, you can find upscale versions at restaurants across the country. From serving the sandwiches with aged cheddar to using challah buns, there’s a different variety depending on what you want. But why wait to go out? Using quality meat, or even chicken, making good Sloppy Joe’s at home is easy and a fun way to incorporate a classic comfort food into your weekly meal plan.
Some ideas for fun spins on a traditional classic:
Add vegetables. Chop up some carrots, dice a red bell pepper, sauté some mushrooms.
Use fresh herbs. A little thyme or oregano will liven up the dish.
Or all kinds of spices. You can change the flavor profile of your Sloppy Joes by adding different spices like cumin, curry powder, or chipotle. You can even try an Asian inspired Joe with Sambal Oelek and Hoisin sauce.
Make the sauce with wine. Just like a good meat-based pasta sauce benefits from a red-wine base, so will your Sloppy Joes.
Mix in sun-dried tomatoes. You can change up the tomato flavor by using sundried tomatoes in addition to the tomato base in your recipe.
Go vegetarian. Switch out ground beef for a veggie protein.
This post was written by Anna Brones, a food and travel writer based in Paris, France who has a love for bikes, coffee and all things organic.