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.
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.
Traditional Sloppy Joes
From “Betty Crocker Cookbook, 11th Edition: The Big Red Cookbook” (Betty Crocker, 2013).
1 pound lean (at least 80 percent) ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/8 teaspoon pepper
6 burger buns, split
COOK beef, onions and celery in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until beef is done. Drain.
STIR in remaining ingredients except buns. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer uncovered 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender. Spoon into buns.
Yield: 6 sandwiches
Asian Sloppy Joe Sliders
How sad your kids won’t find this Asian-styled sandwich on their school lunch trays, because this was one of our favorites. Pickles and lettuce add crunch. From Foodandwine.com.
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 medium red onions, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped celery
3 tablespoons sambal oelek or other Asian chile sauce
2 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground chicken thighs
1 pound ground pork
1 cup hoisin sauce
1 cup drained canned diced tomatoes
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
20 brioche dinner rolls, split and toasted
Shredded iceberg lettuce and spicy pickles, for serving
HEAT canola oil in a large, deep skillet until shimmering. Add onions, celery, chili sauce, garlic, ginger and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes.
ADD ground chicken and pork and cook, stirring occasionally to break up the meat, until no pink remains, about 5 minutes. Stir in hoisin, tomatoes and lime juice and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
SPOON about 1/4 cup of sloppy-Joe filling on the bottom half of each roll. Top with shredded lettuce and pickles and serve. Sloppy-Joe filling can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; reheat gently before serving.
Yield: 20 sliders
Veggie Sloppy Joes
This is the vegetarian answer to sloppy Joes, made with black beans and mushrooms. From “How to Feed a Family,” by Laura Keogh & Ceri Marsh (Random House, 2013).
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 cup diced carrots
1 cup trimmed and diced mushrooms
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon paprika
3 cups canned black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup prepared tomato sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon maple syrup
Salt and pepper
6 whole-wheat hamburger buns
1/2 cup shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese
HEAT olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and carrots and saute until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, cumin, and paprika. Stir everything together and allow mushrooms to soften, 2 to 3 minutes.
ADD beans, tomato sauce, vinegar, mustard and syrup, and allow to simmer and thicken for about 15 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper if you like.
TOAST hamburger buns (to make Joes a bit less sloppy). Spoon a generous amount of bean mixture onto the bottom half of each bun and sprinkle with a good pinch of shredded cheese. Put hamburger lid on top and serve.
Yield: 6 servings
Sloppy Joe Pie
This flaky, one-skillet savory pie isn’t really a pie at all, in that it just has a top crust. But no one will miss the buns, guaranteed. Adapted from “The Big Book of Pies & Tarts” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, softened as directed on box
1 1/2 pound bulk turkey or pork sausage
1 medium onion, chopped ( 1/2 cup)
1 cup frozen corn, thawed
1 cup chunky-style salsa
1/2 cup chili sauce
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
4 1/2 ounce can chopped green chiles
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, if desired
HEAT oven to 450 degrees. Unroll pie crust on ungreased cookie sheet. With sharp knife, cut into a circle to fit the top of the pie pan. Cut out squares for a checkerboard pattern. If desired, place cutouts on crust to decorate, securing each with small amount of water.
BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until crust is light golden brown.
COOK sausage and onion in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until sausage is no longer pink. Stir in remaining ingredients except cilantro. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until corn is cooked and sauce is desired consistency.
STIR cilantro into sausage mixture. Carefully place warm baked crust over turkey mixture in skillet.
Yield: 4 servings
Loaded Sriracha BBQ Sloppy Joe Fries
Instead of sandwich filling, this spicy version is spooned over waffle fries like nachos.
1 pound ground beef
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 cup ketchup
2 teaspoons Sriracha
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons teriyaki sauce
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 (24-ounce) package waffle-cut fries
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
3 green onions, sliced
COOK ground beef in skillet over medium heat. Drain. Reserve 1 tablespoon pan drippings. Cook bell pepper and onion in reserved pan drippings until softened, about 5 minutes. Return ground beef to pan.
ADD ketchup, Sriracha, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, salt, garlic powder and vinegar. Mix well. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
COOK fries according to package instructions while sauce is simmering. You want them crispy so they won’t get soggy underneath the sauce.
HEAT oven broiler. Spoon sloppy-Joe mixture over top of cooked waffle fries. Sprinkle with cheese. Broil just until cheese is melted. Sprinkle green onions on top. Serve with additional Sriracha sauce, if desired.
YIELD: 6 to 8 servings
Tofu Sloppy Joes
From “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Low-Fat Vegan Cooking,” by Bo Rinaldi (DK, 2012). Don’t eat meat? This vegan Joe substitutes tofu, but it’s still flavorful and messy, thanks to a rich tomato-based barbecue sauce.
1 tablespoon virgin coconut oil or vegetable oil
1 small sweet onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced (1/2 cup)
2 small cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces extra-firm tofu, crumbled (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups Kansas City barbecue sauce (see below)
8 (regular or gluten-free) burger buns
12 thin sweet pickle slices
16 pickled jalapeno slices
HEAT oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and pepper and saute for about 6 minutes or until tender. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside.
SAUTE tofu and sea salt in same skillet for about 8 minutes or until browned.
ADD cooked onions, peppers and garlic to pan, and pour in barbecue sauce. Stir to combine, reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes.
DIVIDE tofu mixture among buns and top each with 2 slices sweet pickle and 2 slices jalapeno.
KANSAS CITY BARBECUE SAUCE: Combine 1 cup each ketchup and water, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 6 tablespoons maple syrup, 3 teaspoons ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 teaspoon each celery salt. and ground allspice, and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne in a blender and blend on high until smooth. Refrigerate up to two weeks.
YIELD: 8 servings