The Origin of the ‘Sloppy Joe’

History of the Sloppy Joe
In most of the United States, the Sloppy Joe sandwich is a lunchroom staple, consisting of skillet-cooked ground meat – usually beef – spicy tomato sauce or tomato paste, and bread or a bun. Sometimes greasy and overly sweet, the Sloppy Joe has been served in school cafeterias for years. Today most people associate Sloppy Joes with the commercially available ready-made versions that are available in supermarkets; “Manwich”, as one example, is seasoned beef and sauce in a can, ready to be heated and poured over a bun.  Photo Credit: BabbleManwich Sloppy Joe
Ideally, the meat in the Sloppy Joe is both sweet and spicy at the same time, and is heavily sautéed to give the sauce thickness – far from the cold, greasy monstrosity often served to school kids. It has become, in some more fashionable delis, an experiment in bringing diners back to their youth with combinations that go well beyond tomato paste and beef.    Photo Credit: Conagra Foods

One possible selection, for example, is pork in tomato sauce with ginger, garlic, and chili sauce. Or with cheddar cheese and on a freshly baked Kaiser roll, topped with fresh spices, it’s a long way from something on a hamburger bun served by a lady in a hairnet.

In New Jersey, however, the Sloppy Joe is something completely different. Instead of ground beef, it contains some kind of deli lunch meat, for example, turkey, ham, roast beef, or even sliced cow tongue. It is served on rye bread, often “double-decker” or “triple-decker.” The sandwich is dressed with Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing, similar to a reuben sandwich.

Recently, during one of my cravings for this sloppy goodness in a bun, my inquiring mind began to wonder about the origin of the Sloppy Joe.

One theory of the beginnings of the “Sloppy Joe” style sandwich is that it was the invention of Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havanna. The New Jersey version, however, first appeared on the menu of the Town Hall Deli in South Orange, New Jersey in 1936. To this day, that version, called the Original Sloppy Joe, is a triple-decker sandwich with layers of ham, tongue, and Swiss cheese, with Russian dressing served on long, thin slices of buttered rye and cut into quarters. Another version is made with smoked salmon, creamed cheese and egg salad. Yet others include corned beef.

Some further evidence of the Cuban connection to the Sloppy Joe is seen in a sandwich served in the West Village of New York City. It is essentially a Cuban ropa vieja sandwich, which is based on a marinated pulled skirt steak that is then stewed in a combination of tomato sauce with garlic, cumin, tomatoes, peppers and chilies. This particular iteration is then served on a steam-oven bun.

The New Jersey version of the sandwich, legend has it, was brought back to the states from Havana by the mayor of Maplewood, New Jersey in 1934 or 1935. Of course, given all the versions of the sandwich, there are many explanations for it’s invention and name. Some hold that it originated in Sloppy Joe’s bar in Cuba. Others attribute it to Sloppy Joe’s in Key Wes, Florida – a favorite hangout of Earnest Hemmingway – which is responsible for the first known appearance of the name “Sloppy Joe in print. Still another attributes the ground-meat form of the sandwich to a diner in Iowa, or to the depression-era habit of making almost anything out of hamburger.

Whatever it’s origin, the Sloppy Joe, staple of school cafeterias and New Jersey delis, remains a favorite of all ages, with wide regional variations – all of them delicious.

~ By Kirsten Hawkins and Staff