Editor's note: Don Mauer is taking some time off. This column originally appeared Aug. 22, 2001.
Sloppy Joes: what an awful name for a terrific, homemade dinnertime sandwich.
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Some have not agreed.
James Beard, the 20th Century godfather of American cooking wrote about sloppy Joes: "This is a product of the modern age, and though it is not a palate-tingling delight it has a large public." Perhaps Beard's unique and ultra-generous use of a 1/4 cup of Worcestershire sauce in his version of Sloppy Joes had something to do with his unenthusiastic view.
Curious about where sloppy Joes began, I started my search with my cookbook collection and found a few recipes scattered among older books, but no historical data. Jumping on the information superhighway led me to one website that had 19 different sloppy Joe recipes, including one for sloppy Janes served on toasted French bread.
What appeared to be a website with the most accurate historical information, shared Jean Anderson's research for her "The American Century Cookbook." In it Anderson wrote: "Marilyn Brown, director of the consumer test kitchen at H.K. Heinz in Pittsburgh ... says their research at the Carnegie Library suggests that the sloppy Joe began in a Sioux City, Iowa, cafe as a 'loose meat sandwich' in 1930, the creation of a cook named Joe ..."
I wonder if Joe knows to what lengths American cooks go to alter, or refine his recipe? I found a recipe titled: Stupidly Simple Sloppy Joes using 2 to 21/2 pounds of ground turkey and "enough of your two favorite BBQ sauces to make a sloppy Joe consistency." Ugh.
A crockpot sloppy Joe recipe requires one tablespoon of ground chile pepper (a close cousin to cayenne pepper) and was to be cooked on low for 6-8 hours. Too much time and sizzle for me. A Sloppy Vegetarian calls for carrots, celery, lentils and brown rice to replace the essential, meat ingredient.
The majority of sloppy Joe recipes I reviewed contained some similar ingredients: ground beef, onion, green pepper, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and brown sugar.
My favorite recipe for sloppy Joes failed to make a book or website. I like a sloppy Joe to have strong beef and tomato flavors, with subtle, yet sharp, heat notes, plus some astringency balanced with a sweetness that entices but does not overcome the other flavors. To me, the proper sloppy Joe mixture should be thick yet moist, without being soupy, and it should never make the bun soggy.
Toasting hamburger buns produces a crisp, light exterior crunch, while making the bun's interior absorb some moisture from the sauce without falling apart.
When you read my recipe, you're going to see an ingredient that may startle you: orange juice. I include orange juice because I enjoy a very meaty spaghetti sauce that uses orange juice. The juice brings out that sauce's flavors without tasting like orange juice. I found that orange juice enhanced my sloppy Joes to such a degree that they are simply not as good without it.
I suggest just making my sloppy Joes when the weather starts to cool.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe and makeover requests. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.