If you were to take a nationwide poll asking “What is a Sloppy Joe?”, I’m pretty confident that 99.95% of the responses would say something that sounds like a Manwich; a seasoned chopped beef, minced onion, tomato paste, sometimes with ketchup mix served on a hamburger bun. Folks in parts of Pennsylvania might refer to it as a wimpy. Residents of Woonsocket Rhode Island will add chopped bell peppers and garlic, serve it on a “grinder” size roll and call it a dynamite. But the general consensus is that a Sloppy Joe, is a tomatoey, loose meat sandwich guaranteed to stain your shirt. But not in North New Jersey, at least not in one county. I mean, at least not in six or seven towns in that county. That other .05% of the population will insist that a Sloppy Joe is a multi-layered deli sandwich with typically two sliced cold cuts of meat and cheese which is smothered with coleslaw and a healthy dousing of Russian or Thousand Island dressing on thin rye bread.
Are people from North Jersey stupid or what?
First of all, watch your mouth! But to be fair, I can understand why we have a stigma seeing how we insist on calling pork roll "taylor ham" despite the facts. We're just gonna call a sandwich whatever we want. You got a problem with that? But in this case, like the rest of the country, even most of North Jersey thinks a Sloppy Joe is the ground beef thing. It’s just those Essex County bastards that are causing all the ruckus!
The Obligatory Origin Story
Around the corner from where Michael last kissed Fredo, a popular Havana bar owned by Jose Garcia, affectionately known as Sloppy Joes, was serving rum cocktails to celebrities like Ernest Hemingway and his expat pals since the early 1930's. Thomas Sweeney, the vacationing mayor from Maplewood New Jersey frequented the bar one particular summer. There he discovered a sandwich like no other he had ever tried. Upon returning home, he approached his favorite delicatessen in South Orange, the Town Hall, looking to replicate his new obsession for his weekly card game. Owners at the time, Heinz Berdorf and Fred Joost obliged by creating a ham, cow tongue and Swiss cheese triple decker. They lathered the layers of lightly buttered pullman rye bread with tangy coleslaw and homemade Russian dressing that kept the sandwich moist and his hands a little messy. He loved it and they put it on the menu naming it after the famous Cuban cantina.
Like the Texas Weiner, another North Jersey specialty that never quite found fame outside of its county of origin, the Sloppy Joe is only really known within a 15 mile radius from where it was first created. Over 80 years later, current Town Hall Deli owner Tony Wonski has an impressive assembly line of workers pumping out sandwiches like they are Model T Fords. And while tongue is still on the menu, their best seller the "Favorite Joe" has a layer of roast beef, turkey and swiss that requires a little pre-game jaw stretching. Nearby, the Millburn Deli’s version has created a friendly decades old rivalry with their 3-cut version of the triple decker. Likewise, other popular versions can be found at old school Jewish delis like Eppes Essen in Livingston and The Kosher Nosh in Glen Rock. Make sure to check out either of their “smokey joes”, an awesome smoked salmon version of the sandwich that just might make you want to convert.
In Key West Florida, less than 95 nautical miles from Cuba, cocktail connoisseur Papa Hemingway was known to enjoy a pop or two at his favorite "Conch Republic" watering hole. He encouraged the bar owner/fishing guide Joe Russell to change the bar's name to Sloppy Joes after his favorite Havana haunt. The bar has been at the same lively location on the corner of Duval and Green Streets since 1937, becoming a Key West pastime. Nowadays, they are known for making their ropa vieja inspired ground beef style Sloppy Joe, which to be honest, sounds a little like they are making them because of the name of the bar.
According to multiple foodie sources way smarter than me, the "real" Sloppy Joe is believed to have been created in Sioux City, Iowa coincidentally in the 1930s. A chef aptly named Joe added tomato sauce to the areas famous local loose meat sandwich made popular by the regional fast food chain Maid-Rite. Hawkeyes have been enjoying fried loose meat beef sandwiches on steamed buns with ketchup, mustard, onion and pickles a whole decade before the creation of the Sloppy Joe. So this makes perfect sense!
Maybe Jersey should have gone with the name Sloppy Joey to differentiate itself, but if I'm okay with living in a world where I can stuff my face with a dark chocolate Dove bar then wash that same face with a bar of Dove Sensitive Skin soap, I can deal with the existence of two Sloppy Joes as long as they both taste good. Can you?