Everyone has a tale about what the lunch ladies ladled up in the school cafeteria: chicken nuggets so rubbery you swear theyd bounce if you threw them on the floor. Mystery-meat tacos. And, of course, greasy, tomato-y, oozing-from-the-bun sloppy Joes.Love em or hate em, the messy chopped meat and tomato sauce sandwich is for many an iconic childhood lunch food. 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 wasnt always a fan of the sloppy Joe. I always found the canned sauce, introduced by Hunts 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), and somehow, I dont 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 are 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 that 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. 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 that the sandwich was inspired by two famous restaurants named Sloppy Joes Bar one in Havana, Cuba, owned by Jose Garcia, and another in Key West, Fla., that was a favorite haunt of novelist Ernest Hemingway.The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink dates the sandwich to about 1935 but cant pinpoint its exact birth. There is probably no Joe after whom it is named but its rather messy appearance and tendency to drip off the 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 McCalls Cook Book. It called for sauteing half a 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 ketchup. Skillet-cooked, hamburger-based sloppy Joes remain the American standard, though sometimes the dish is known by another name. In Rhode Island, for instance, where the tomato-y meat mixture is served on a torpedo roll, its called a dynamite sandwich; youll also find the sandwich described on menus as the yum yum, slush burger, spoonburger or, when its 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 dont like to cook or who think theyre too busy to cook, theres always Manwich sauces, of course, which now come in Bold and Thick & Chunky flavors in addition to the 1960s original. If you absolutely, positively dont want to lift a finger except to push the microwave on button, theres also a pre-mixed, pre-cooked Manwich product that comes in a heatable plastic container. But really, wouldnt that be a mistake when the real deal is so easy to prepare?Youre 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? Its 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 youre willing to be just a bit adventurous with the meat and seasonings, youll create a dish that will become legendary in your kids minds for all the right reasons.
Traditional sloppy Joes
Makes 6 sandwiches
• 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
1. In a 10-inch skillet, cook beef, onion and celery over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until beef is done. Drain.
2. 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.
— “Betty Crocker Cookbook, 11th Edition: The Big Red Cookbook” (Betty Crocker; $21.99)
Asian sloppy Joe sliders
Makes 20 sliders
How sad your kids won’t find this Asian-style sandwich on school lunch trays, because this was one of our favorites. Pickles and lettuce add crunch.
• 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
• Kosher salt
• 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
1. In a large, deep skillet, heat canola oil 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.
2. 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.
3. Spoon about 1/4 cup sloppy Joe filling on the bottom half of each roll. Top with lettuce, pickles and the bun’s top half and serve. Filling can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; reheat gently before serving.
Sloppy Joe pie
Makes 4 servings
This flaky, one-skillet savory pie isn’t really a pie , in that it just has a top crust. But no one will miss the buns, guaranteed.
• 1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, softened as directed on box
• 1 1/2 pounds 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
1. 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.
2. Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until crust is light golden brown.
3. Meanwhile, in 10-inch skillet, cook sausage and onion over medium-high heat 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.
4. Stir cilantro into sausage mixture. Carefully place warm baked crust over turkey mixture in skillet.
— Adapted from “The Big Book of Pies & Tarts” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $19.99)
Loaded Sriracha barbecue sloppy Joe fries
Serves 6 to 8
These nacholike sloppy Joes are perfect for game day.
• 1 pound ground beef
• 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
• Half a 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
• 24-ounce bag waffle-cut fries
• 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
• 3 green onions, sliced
1. Cook ground beef in skillet over medium heat. Drain. Reserve 1 tablespoon pan drippings. Cook bell pepper and the half-onion in reserved pan drippings until softened, about 5 minutes. Return ground beef to pan.
2. Add ketchup, Sriracha, sauces, salt, garlic powder and vinegar. Mix well. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. While sauce is simmering, cook fries according to package instructions. You want them crispy so they won’t get soggy underneath the sauce.
4. Turn oven to broil. Spoon sloppy Joe mixture over top of cooked fries. Sprinkle with cheese. Broil just until cheese is melted. Sprinkle green onions on top. Serve with additional Sriracha sauce, if desired.