Don’t Forget the Napkins!

What do you get when you combine ground beef, onions, tomato sauce or ketchup and seasonings on a hamburger bun? If you guessed a “sloppy joe sandwich,” you’re right! Sloppy joes are an American creation that has been around since at least the 1920s. They probably got their start as a variation of the “loose meat” sandwiches that were popular at that time. “Loose meat” sandwiches didn’t contain tomato sauce. According to legend, a cook named Joe at a café in Sioux City, Iowa, added tomato sauce to his loose meat sandwiches and the “sloppy joe” was born. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Sloppy joes are popular with most children and are a favorite in lunch rooms in schools all over the country. They’re also a favorite of parents when dinner time approaches, since sloppy joes are easy and inexpensive to make. You can use a homemade recipe of ground beef, onions, tomato sauce or ketchup and seasonings. Fry up the ground beef, add the other ingredients and serve it hot on a bun.

If you’re a vegetarian, you can substitute vegetable protein or tofu for ground beef to make meatless sloppy joes.

Many people find the name “sloppy joes” to be somewhat amusing. In different parts of the U.S., sloppy joes go by a variety of names. Some other names for sloppy joes include dynamites, goulash sandwiches, sloppy janes, slushburgers, steamers, wimpies and yum yums.

Just like the many names for sloppy joes, you’ll also find all sorts of variations on the traditional recipe around the country. Some areas use other meats, such as chicken, instead of ground beef. Other areas add special spices, like cinnamon and brown sugar.

From that Iowa restaurant in the mid-1920s, sloppy joe sandwiches have changed with the times. Throughout the 1930s, recipes evolved that called for the addition of ingredients like ketchup. During World War II, many consumer products, including ground beef, were rationed as a way to help the American war effort. Homemakers were forced to look for creative ways to stretch the household food dollar. As a result, they would mix ground beef with various sauces to help make the supply last longer. Over time, tastes changed and folks varied their add-ins to suit current trends.

How do you like your sloppy joes? Try one of our recipes and choose your favorite!

Sloppy Joes

  • 2–3 Tbs. canola oil
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeno, minced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1½ cups tomato sauce
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbs. honey
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard powder
  • ¾ tsp. kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 burger buns or Kaiser rolls

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the meat and the onion for 5 minutes, breaking up the meat into crumbles as it cooks. Pour the drippings out of the pan and discard. Add the garlic, jalapeno, and red pepper and cook 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Stir in the rest of the ingredients, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 5 minutes more. Place 3–4 tablespoons of the mixture onto each bun and serve.

There are those who believe the sloppy joe has evolved from sandwiches featuring shredded beef.

The original sandwich was called Ropa Viejas which, in Spanish, translates to “Old Clothes.” This type of sandwich was made of braised flank steak, shredded and served on tortillas.

Ropa Viejas

  • 2 lbs. flank steak or boneless flanken
  • 2 Tbs. canola oil
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1 Tbs. vinegar

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or roaster. Brown steak; turning to cook all sides. Add the rest of the ingredients, mixing well. Cover and simmer for 3–4 hours or until steak shreds easily. Shred and serve on tortillas or buns.

Another way to enjoy your sloppy joe is on a baked potato. It makes a complete meal without the bun. Our version uses ground turkey and vegetables for an even healthier option.

Sloppy Joe Potatoes

  • 4 russet potatoes
  • 2 Tbs. canola oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, shredded
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 lb. ground dark turkey
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • ½ cup ketchup
  • ¼ cup tomato sauce
  • ½ cup chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup sweet chili sauce
  • 1 Tbs. chili powder, optional
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed

Pierce the potatoes in a few places with a fork. Either bake potatoes in the oven for 45 minutes or microwave until tender, turning once, about 15 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 7 minutes. Add the turkey and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper; cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink on the surface, about 5 minutes. Stir in the ketchup, chili sauce, chili powder and garlic; continue cooking until the meat is cooked through, 3 to 5 more minutes.

Split the baked potatoes open lengthwise, drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and gently fluff the flesh with a fork. Top with the turkey mixture and serve hot.

So whether you call it a loose burger, ropa viejas or just plain sloppy joes, roll up your sleeves, grab a roll of paper towels and enjoy this spicy, sweet, tangy legacy of a sandwich. And don’t forget a side of chips and a dill pickle.