Most of us have stories about what the lunch ladies ladled out in the school cafeteria: Chicken nuggets so rubbery you swear they’d bounce if you threw one on the floor. Mystery-meat tacos. And, of course, greasy, oozing-from-the-bun sloppy Joe sandwiches.
Love ’em or hate ’em, the messy ground meat and tomato sauce sandwich is, for many, an iconic lunch food of childhood. For meat eaters of a particular demographic, it also showed up on the family dinner table, usually with tater tots and and an iceberg-lettuce salad.
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. But I could be in the minority: ConAgra sold more than 70 million cans of the stuff 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.
The origins of the sloppy Joe — typically made with ground beef, tomato sauce or ketchup, onions and spices and served on a hamburger bun — are almost as messy as the sandwich itself. 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 dish first served in Muscatine, Iowa, during President Calvin Coolidge’s administration. In 1926, a butcher named Floyd Angell opened Maid-Rite, a walk-up eatery that grew into a chain 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.
The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink dates the sandwich to about 1935: “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 it was 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 popular on dinner tables across the United States because it helped home cooks stretch scant meat supplies during the Great Depression and World War II. The dish merited mentions in several 1940s movies, including Citizen Kane. The first printed recipe that dubbed the hamburger dish “sloppy Joe” was in 1963, in the McCall’s Cook Book.
Skillet-cooked, hamburger-based sloppy Joes remain the American standard, though there are regional variations and names. In Rhode Island, where the 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 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 think they’re too busy to cook, there’s always Hunt’s Manwich sauces, which now come in Bold and Thick & Chunky in addition to the 1960s original. There’s also a heat-and-serve Manwich product in a microwaveable plastic container. (A lunch-lady hairnet to wear while serving it is optional.)
But wouldn’t that be a mistake when the real deal is so easy to prepare? 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.