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By: MaryAnn Miano

What could be more ideal than an imperfect sandwich that you can “slop” together with easy ingredients and have emerge a mess that tastes perfect? As part of our old-school traditional American dishes, a Sloppy Joe easily fulfills our need for simple-to-prepare foods, with the end result a creation for happily fulfilled taste buds.

Most of us remember Sloppy Joes being served in our school cafeterias or being prepared by our busy mom or dad. They are part of the comfort foods of our childhood.

Legend has it that Sloppy Joes began in a café in Sioux City, Iowa. Somewhere around the late 1920s, a cook named Joe took loose meat, added tomatoes, and turned it into a sandwich. In the 1940s, it became common to see references to Sloppy Joe sandwiches as an alternative to the hamburger. A “Sloppy Joe’s Café” typified an inexpensive, quick food restaurant with a lunch counter, where one could dine in a casual atmosphere.

Curiously, in our own home state of New Jersey, a Sloppy Joe has always meant a sandwich made with deli meats and not ground beef. Turkey, ham, or roast beef is served on rye bread as a double or triple decker, topped with Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing. The mayor of Maplewood, New Jersey, introduced the New Jersey Sloppy Joe version back in 1934 or 1935.

A Sloppy Joe has probably been “borrowed” from other culinary traditions. In China, stewed pork, beef, or lamb is prepared on a bun. Indian cuisine also fills pav bread rolls with keema, a minced, stewed, curried meat. An American Sloppy Joe is a crowd pleaser that can go beyond tomato sauce and hamburger meat.

A Sloppy Joe is, of course, a sloppy, muddled concoction that tastes appealing. The unpretentious dish helps stretch meat with other ingredients, which is helpful when feeding a family. The loose meat sandwich was kicked up a notch when sauces such as tomato were added to the dish.

Sloppy Joes are usually prepared in a skillet, taking chopped meat of any kind and sautéing, then adding beans, barbecue sauce, ketchup or tomato sauce. It can be seasoned anyway you’d like, with ingredients such as onions, various spices, garlic, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce, ground pepper, Tabasco sauce, paprika, dark brown sugar, tomato paste, diced celery – the combinations are endless and the balance of flavors is perfect. The ideal would be a combination of sweet and spicy.

The delicious mixture is made to simmer, then it is slathered between a bun or roll. But do be careful; its rather messy appearance and tendency to drip off your bun and plate affirms its sloppy name!

Pay homage to the Sloppy Joe and to your childhood memories on National Sloppy Joe Day this March 18 by preparing the following recipe:



  • 1 Tbs. canola oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1/4 cup finely diced green bell pepper
  • 1 1/2 lb. ground beef
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup ketchup-style chili sauce
  • 1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbs. cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbs. firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • 6 sesame-seed sandwich buns, split


In a large fry pan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the beef, increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring and breaking up the beef with a wooden spoon, until it is no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup water, the tomato sauce, chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes to blend the flavors.

Toast the buns. Place the bottom halves of the buns, cut side up, on warmed individual plates and top with the beef mixture, dividing it equally. Cover with the bun tops and serve immediately. Makes 6 sandwiches.

Variation: Sloppy Joes are just as good when made with ground turkey or ground chicken. Some cooks like to add 1 to 2 cups cooked kidney or pinto beans to the beef mixture just before it is ready. Or, you can top the beef mixture with thin slices of cheddar cheese before covering with the bun tops.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Comfort Food, by Rick Rodgers (Oxmoor House, 2009).