Where Did the Sloppy Joe Come From?

Long considered an American comfort food staple, the Sloppy Joe origin story may have its beginnings a little further south, with a little help from another American legend.

Sloppy Joes became popular in the 1930s as a way for families to stretch their food a bit. Inexpensive cuts of meat combined with a tomato sauce and fillers like onion could feed a lot of people, especially when you served it on bread for a complete meal. It helps that the sandwich is popular with all ages. Even today, the Sloppy Joe is considered a budget-friendly and kid-friendly food.

However, it started off with a different purpose. The combo of meat and bread is good for soaking up a round of day drinking, so Havana, Cuba, bar owner José García created a handheld version of ropa vieja to serve to his tipsy customers. The story goes that García’s establishment was so messy that patrons started to refer to him as “Sloppy Joe,” a name which stuck to the sandwich as well.

Sloppy Joe
Flickr: Florida Keys Public Libraries

The name jumped over to the United States when Ernest Hemingway, who was said to frequent the Havana club, brought the sandwich concept to his favorite bar in Key West and suggested the bar change its name to honor the Cuban original (it also worked because the bar was owned by Joe Russell). Sloppy Joe’s in Key West still serves tens of thousands of the sandwiches every year.

Flickr: Roger W

There’s another version of the story, though, that takes us up north. Loose meat sandwiches have long been popular in the northern mid-west region of the United States, and sometime in the ’20s or ’30s a Sioux City, Iowa, diner cook named Joe introduced tomato sauce to the loose meat mix, creating the “sloppy joe” sandwich.

Regardless of where it started (and it’s possible that both stories could be true), the sandwich with the sweet and tangy sauce is a tried and true favorite. It also goes by other names in different parts of the U.S. Sloppy Janes (Central Minnesota), Dynamites (Northern Rhode Island), Tavern Sandwiches (Iowa), and Slushburgers (Upper Midwest and North Dakota) are what you might be offered if you’re looking for this classic sandwich.

Whatever it was called, the sandwich became such a fixture in home dinner rotation that ConAgra Foods and Hunt’s (the ketchup maker) introduced Manwich in 1969. With a tagline that said “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal,” cooks could simply mix the canned sauce with browned meat and serve. The canned sauce is still popular today. In fact, Manwich is even on Twitter as a “Sloppy Joe enthusiast, mealtime solutionist.”

The Sloppy Joe is something of a blank slate sandwich. You can swap spices, add vegetables, change out the hamburger bun, and even use ground turkey instead of ground beef. You can make the sauce less sweet or change the brown sugar out for honey or a sugar substitute. How you cook it is flexible, too. You can make it in a Crock-Pot or slow cooker if you need a hands-off approach, or in a large skillet for a  meal that doesn’t require much cook time. The versatility makes it a good basic recipe to have in your repertoire and a fun dish to experiment with.  Try serving it as a Sloppy Joe hot dog or taco, or turn it into a casserole. However you make it, Sloppy Joes are good eats.

We’ve got three Sloppy Joes recipes for you, all classics that make meal time easy and fun.

Best Homemade Sloppy Joe

Sloppy Joe
Five Heart Home

The best Sloppy Joe recipe is the classic version, but with a sauce that’s way better than the canned stuff. Using all natural ingredients, you can whip up the homemade sauce in the time it takes to brown the ground beef. Then mix the sauce with the meat and you’ve made dinner in no time flat. Plus, if you’re looking for a way to pack a few more veggies into dinner, this recipe makes it easy to include (or hide, for picky eaters) those.

Get the recipe here.

Asian Style Sloppy Joe

Sloppy Joe
How Sweet Eats

Take the basic foundation of a Sloppy Joe sauce and you can give it almost any kind of twist you like. In this Asian style sandwich, swap the traditional green bell pepper and Worcestershire sauce for chili garlic paste, hoisin sauce, ginger, and lime juice. Plus, top the Sloppy Joe meat with an Asian style slaw for extra crunch and taste.

Get the recipe here.

Tex Mex Sloppy Joe

Sloppy Joe
Smells Like Home

Of course, there’s a Tex Mex version of a Sloppy Joe sandwich. This Sloppy Joe recipe reads a little like a good chili that you cook a bit less, then serve on buns topped with guacamole and maybe some jalapeños, onion, and queso fresco. Yes, please.

Get the recipe here.

Watch: 10 Iconic Presidents’ Favorite Foods.