Unlike many of the other recipes that I have delved into the histories of, such as chicken Divan, chicken a la king, or mock apple pie, this is a meal that was very popular in my household growing up. I chose specifically to talk about it in October because it was often made by my mother before going out on Halloween night for candy. As she worked and Halloween often lands during the week, this was an easy and cheap meal to pull together with just a can of Manwich, ground beef, and buns. It is also a meal I still make quite often now that I am older, except without the can of Manwich as I found how easy it is to make with simple ingredients.
Who and where were Sloppy Joes created?
Like many popular recipes, the origins are not really known for this sandwich. There is one camp that believes the sloppy joes evolved from loose meat sandwiches that were introduced by Floyd Angell, the founder of the Maid-Rite Restaurants, in 1926. Others credit a cafe cook named Joe for the first loose meat sandwich in Sioux City, Iowa in which the test kitchens at H.J. Heinz agree with research they did at Carnegie Library into the origins of the Sloppy Joe. John Mariani in The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink says that the origins are unknown but that the first mention in print was in 1940 for an Ohio restaurant.
How it got its name is even under debate. Some claim it is named after either a bar in Havana, Cuba that was popular with Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s or a bar in Key West, Florida both named Sloppy Joes. Another guess is that they were often served in the 1930s by restaurants called “Sloppy Joes” and in turn, the sandwiches were called the same. Others say it’s because of the fact that the sandwiches are messy to eat as the reason for the name.
What ingredients are in Sloppy Joes?
The sloppy joe at its most basic is browned ground beef in a seasoned tomato sauce served on a hamburger bun. The typical recipe for the sauce, which you can find even today, consists of mixing ketchup (or tomato sauce), barbecue sauce, and brown sugar with chili powder. Often the beef is browned with chopped onions, bell peppers, and garlic with Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and hot sauce sometimes added. A trendy mid-century addition was diced celery added to the ground beef mixture as well as using chili sauce instead of barbecue sauce. Also popular in the 50s and 60s was to spoon the beef mixture onto the bun and either sprinkle with some shredded cheddar or a thin slice of cheese and place them on a baking sheet to bake for twenty minutes at 350 degrees.
When were Sloppy Joes popular?
According to Andrew F. Smith in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America the sandwich was “firmly established in America’s sandwich culture” by 1948. Since then, the sandwich has been a popular dish in many American homes and school cafeterias.
In a 1952 newspaper article, it was declared a teenage favorite and that “when the teenage gang descends on your home for eats let it be ‘Sloppy Joes’ and plenty of them”. Also by the 1950s, on the market was Libby’s Barbecue Sauce and Beef Sloppy Joe which was a premade canned sloppy joe that all you had to do was heat and spoon onto toasted hamburger buns.
In 1957, a Canadian newspaper published an article about the popularity of sloppy joes in American school cafeterias. Mary Moore, the author of the article, got to see this first hand when she visited a West Palm Beach high school during lunch and saw how much the students enjoyed the sloppy joes on the menu. She then realized how perfect it was it serve this at other events for teens instead of the usual hot dogs and cokes. Mary Moore went on to write about the messy sandwich at least two more times with one article in which she attempts to “tidy up” this cheap meal for a dinner party where she offers the suggestion of serving them on a silver platter.
A title for a 1960s article proclaimed that sloppy joes were popular with all ages. The same article offered up some toppings to elevate sloppy joes, especially the canned versions. They range from normal such as shredded cheese, sliced tomatoes, or sliced onions to slightly stranger such as chopped peanuts. Around this time McCormick introduced Sloppy Joe Seasoning to the market in which you added the spice packet with tomato paste and water to browned ground beef.
Manwich was introduced in 1969 which is a seasoned tomato-based sauce that all you need to add is browned ground meat and place the mixture on a bun for an easy meal. Later in 1977, due to its popularity, Manwich added a family-sized canned of its sauce to the markets. The same year, they also announced its first Black-oriented ad campaign not only to be launched in Ebony Magazine but also in Ladies Homes Journal, Family Circle, McCall’s, and Redbook.
Even James Beard, the famous culinary personality of the mid-century and all-around gourmet, begrudgingly added the recipe to his 1972 James Beard’s American Cookery. In it, he calls the sloppy joe a “product of the modern age, and though it is not a palate-tingling delight it has a large following”.
In 2007, an article called the sloppy joes a perfect family meal. The reason why? “Kids like sloppy joes because they’re a tasty and messy version of hamburgers, and adults like them because they’re quick and easy to prepare.” Of course, this article goes on to give a recipe for a leaner version of the recipe as that was an increasing concern starting around the 90s.
Why should I make Sloppy Joes?
Well, I think the quote for the 2007 article above summed it up quite well. Sloppy Joes are quite tasty. They are quick and easy to make with ingredients that most households have already in their fridges or pantries. Also, many people tend to like them so they are easy to serve to large groups of people.
Any other fun facts about Sloppy Joes?
Why yes I do! Sloppy Joes were a very popular style of sweater for teen girls in the 1940s, especially during wartime. It was an oversized “boyfriend” style sweater that came in either a pullover or a cardigan usually worn with a knee-length skirt with penny loafer shoes. The trend was gleefully proclaimed over in a 1952 article. The author, Mrs. Ferguson, declares “the sloppy joe fashion is out” and was “replaced by well-fitting skirts, sweaters, and blouses”.
How do you make Sloppy Joes?
I won’t lie I actually debated if I should even include a recipe as a quick Google search brings up many upon many recipes for Sloppy Joes that use close to the same ingredients in differing proportions. That all changed during my research when I came across a recipe that was submitted to a newspaper. Instead of using the normal base of ketchup, brown sugar, and barbecue sauce, this recipe uses tomato juice that is seasoned and then thickened using cornstarch. After much tweaking, I bring you this unconventional sloppy joe recipe from 1954.
A Sloppy Joe recipe I adapted from a 1954 newspaper that uses tomato juice as a base.
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 bell pepper (any color), chopped
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- 1 cup tomato juice
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoons brown sugar (regular white sugar can be used)
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar (or whatever you have on hand)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1/4 cup milk or water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of corn starch
- 4 to 6 hamburger buns
- Toppings of choice such as: grated or sliced cheese, sliced yellow onion, tomatoes, lettuce or pickles.
- Heat oil over medium heat and then cook onions and peppers until softened about 5 minutes.
- Add ground beef and cook until now longer pink.
- Mix in tomato juice, chili powder, brown sugar, Worcestershire, vinegar, salt and pepper. Turn up heat to get mixture boiling.
- Mix together milk/water with cornstarch and pour into meat mixture. Stir until thickened. You may add extra tomato juice if you feel the mixture is too thick to thin it out some.
- Remove from heat and spoon onto hamburger buns and top them to your hearts desire!
Anderson, Jean. American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1997.
“A ‘Sloppy Joe’ Treat”. The Spokesman Review. April 20, 1952.
“Black-Oriented ‘Manwich’ Ad Campaign Launched in Ebony Magazine”. Jet Magazine. September 22, 1977.
Ferguson, Walter. “A Woman’s View: Out with Sloppy Joe.” The Pittsburge Press. Febuary 11, 1954.
Hanscom, Bob. “Where Your Children Eat: Uncrowded Ballard Lunchroom ‘Finest'”. St. Petersburg Times. November 4, 1954.
Maddox, Gaynor. “Sloppy Joes Steal Show”. The Sumter Daily Item. October 12, 1966.
Manweiler, Kathy. “Sloppy Joes Can Make Mother Happy, Too”. The Vindicator. May 30, 2007.
Mariani, John F. The Encyclopedia American Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Moore Mary. “A Tasty Basic Recipe with Many Variations”. Ottawa Citizen. November 2, 1957.
Moore, Mary. “Silver Platter for Sloppy Joes.” The Windsor Star. Spril 12, 1966.
Moore, Mary. “Sloppy Joes Popular with All Age Groups”. The Windsor Star. November 28, 1969.
“Sloppy Joes Go On An International Spree”. The Ashson Record. August 17, 1976.
Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America Volume: 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Westmoreland, Susan. Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook. New York: Hearst Books, 2004.
“Women’s Exchange.” Another Sloppy Joe Recipe.” Warsaw Times Union. April 23, 1954.
Ebony Magazine: August, 1977
Ebony Magazine: August, 1978
Life Magazine – October 22, 1965
Life Magazine – November 7, 1969
Working Mother Magazine: March, 1987
6 thoughts on “The History of Sloppy Joes”
Thanks for researching and writing this! One of my favorite memories is of visiting my paternal grandparents, and eating my grandma’s sloppy joe sandwiches, with a side of potato chips. I should make that more often for myself.
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Thank you! Plus sloppy joes with potato chips is the best.
My mother use to make her own version back in the 1950s
Still love it today
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Sloppy Joes are quite delicious!