David Hammond

Behold the Sloppy Joe, browned beef, glistening with tangy red sauce that sinks into the spongy bun, rendering the bread much more delicious. It’s a mess to eat, and the enjoyment of the Sloppy Joe depends a lot upon the quality of the sauce. But even if you go beyond Manwich for the sauce (and you really should), the Sloppy Joe is an unabashedly unpretentious sandwich.

The Sloppy Joe is in line of descent from loose meat sandwiches sold at places like the Iowa-based Maid-Rite chain, and the Sloppy Joe may also have its origin in Iowa. According to some accounts, “…a cook named Joe at Floyd Angell’s Café in Sioux City, Iowa, added tomato sauce to his ‘loose meat’ sandwiches and the ‘sloppy joe’ sandwich was born.”

There is a competing origin story that the Sloppy Joe sandwich is named after one or more bars called Sloppy Joe’s in Havana and Tampa. According to this genealogy, the Sloppy Joe sandwich descended from ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban dish of beef and tomato sauce. []

Whatever their origin, Sloppy Joes are quintessential all-American comfort food, simple, tasty, and almost never found outside the home. The Dictionary of American Slang defines the Sloppy Joe not as a food but as a “restaurant or lunch counter serving cheap food quickly.”

A lunch counter or diner seems like the right place to look for Sloppy Joes. Surprisingly, Sloppy Joes are not offered at likely places like Al’s Grill (1100 Madison) nor at Louie’s Grill (7422 Madison). We’ve had them at Mickey’s Drive-in (635 Mannheim), but really, a Sloppy Joe is something you’re probably going to prepare, and enjoy, at home.

Recently, we (meaning Carolyn) made a batch of Sloppy Joes using a homemade sauce (ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, garlic, black pepper and brown sugar) and 85% lean ground beef. You can use a lean meat with Sloppy Joes and still have a moist and delicious sandwich thanks to the sauce. We used a Whole Foods brioche bun, which proved the appropriately soft and absorbent delivery system for the deliciously messy meat.

Like many classic dishes, the Sloppy Joe is open to infinite variation. Uses of different proteins and sauces is one way to vary the standard through personal preference. As I was researching this article, I came across a recipe for a casserole of Sloppy Joe meat and sauce topped with Tater Tots. That sounds like a warm and wonderful dish I’d like to eat while it’s still cold outside.

Celebrate National Sloppy Joe Day on March 18.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...