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The Origins of the Sloppy Joe Are as Mysterious as Its Ingredients

Where it came from and how it got its name are questions with highly debatable answers, but it’s clear that Adam Sandler has done more for the Sloppy Joe than anyone else

Don’t get me wrong, I loved pizza Fridays as a kid. After a long week in school, it was nice to know that on Friday, lunch would be something reliable, something you could trust, and with pizza being just three easily-identifiable ingredients, you always knew what you were getting. But while Pizza Day was comforting, it wasn’t the most exciting day on the school cafeteria menu. That honor, without a doubt, belonged to Sloppy Joe Day.

I usually brought my lunches to school back in the day, but about once or twice a week, I’d get some money from my mom to buy lunch. Fridays were a given — I always bought lunch on pizza Fridays — but Sloppy Joe Day was less predictable. It might occur only once or twice a month, and you never saw it coming (unless you read the monthly menu beforehand, which, of course, I didn’t). Sloppy Joe Day was a surprise and, once you got your Sloppy Joe, the surprises didn’t end there, because, what the fuck was that stuff anyway? It was beef, I’m sure, but was it something else beforehand? Was it the meatballs from Tuesday or the hamburgers from Wednesday? Or was it — like the Adam Sandler song says — yesterday’s meatloaf? There was simply no way to know. Fortunately, I didn’t care, because it was always delicious, whatever the hell it was.

To be clear though, Sloppy Joes are generally not made of leftovers at all, as there’s a pretty standardized recipe for them. Sometimes people like to get creative, but Sloppy Joes are simply cooked ground beef in a tomato-based sauce, sometimes with diced onions, peppers and some spices thrown in. They’re not much different from a taco, just with different flavoring and put on a bun instead of a tortilla. But there’s something about its messy nature and unflattering name that has given it a more dubious, questionable, almost mystery-meat-like reputation (even if it doesn’t deserve such scorn).

This ambiguous nature is a theme that echoes all the way back to the origins of the sandwich, as no one’s exactly sure where it came from. The term “Sloppy Joe” didn’t originally describe a sandwich at all: Historically, it was a pretty common pairing of words going back to at least the 1880s, where it was used as a lighthearted insult for someone who was unkempt. “Sloppy Joe’s” was also used as a way to describe a cheap restaurant or lunch counter, much like the term “greasy spoon.” 

Perhaps the most famous Sloppy Joe’s was a bar in Havana, Cuba, that opened up in 1918, an enormously popular tourist spot for Americans, particularly during prohibition. Then there was Sloppy Joe’s Bar that opened up in Key West, Florida, in 1933. Both have been pointed to as potential spots for the sandwich to have originated, but there’s also some research done at the Carnegie Library that points to a Midwestern origin, specifically with the “loose meat sandwiches” of Sioux City, Iowa. 

Wherever it originated, references to Sloppy Joe sandwiches began popping up regularly in newspapers in the 1940s, and by 1949, it was already being served in school cafeterias. For the next two decades, Sloppy Joes grew in popularity across the country, but in 1969, their popularity hit new heights thanks to the introduction of a canned Sloppy Joe sauce that would soon become synonymous with the sandwich. I am talking, of course, about Manwich.

“In 1969, Hunt’s was looking for a way to diversify their business,” Dan Skinner, brand communications manager for Conagra Brands (which now owns Hunts and Manwich), tells me. “Hunt’s was a tomato and vegetable canning business, and they were looking for ways to expand their offerings, and out of that came Manwich and Snack Pack.” As this was a period where more women were entering the workforce, Manwich caught on as a popular, easy-to-prepare meal. Skinner tells me that its popularity grew even more in the mid-1970s thanks to the popular advertising slogan, “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal.”

While the Sloppy Joe’s influence was growing on dinner tables and in cafeterias across America in the 1970s and 1980s, it wouldn’t really begin to influence popular culture in a major way until a couple of decades later, when the kids who grew up eating Sloppy Joes began to take over the entertainment world. It’s appeared multiple times in The Simpsons, perhaps most memorably in a “Treehouse of Horror” episode from 1994, when the juvenile delinquent Jimbo is ground into the cafeteria’s Sloppy Joes. There’s also a notable appearance in King of the Hill, when Bobby, upon receiving a meatless Sloppy Joe, exclaims, “My Sloppy Joe is all sloppy, and no joe.”

But although those Sloppy Joe references are fun, they’re kind of like the little bits of peppers and onions that one might find in a Sloppy Joe — they’re nice, and I appreciate the effort, but they’re hardly the main attraction. Indeed, the most important and memorable pop-culture appearances of the Sloppy Joe both belong to Adam Sandler, the meat in the Sloppy Joe history.

I’m talking, of course, about the Saturday Night Live sketch “Lunch Lady Land,” where Adam Sandler sings a song about the lunch lady (played silently by Chris Farley). In the song, Sandler describes the lunch lady in painstaking detail, from her “case of the gout” to the “black hairs” coming out of her nose. From there, the song descends into a bizarre dream where the cafeteria foods are seeking revenge upon the lunch lady. Fortunately, the noble Sloppy Joe — played by Kevin Nealon — comes to her defense by reminding the other foods that they should be grateful to the lunch lady.

For me personally, I literally cannot hear the words “Sloppy Joe” without picturing Chris Farley dancing as a lunch lady. But that wasn’t enough for Sandler: Not only did he make Sloppy Joe history in 1994 with “Lunch Lady Land,” he also gave the food its most memorable film appearance the very next year, when a creepy-as-fuck lunch lady in Billy Madison serves up some “extra sloppy” Sloppy Joes as she cackles in a terrifying manner.

Over the next decade, the Sloppy Joe would get some love from the likes of Scrubs and a children’s book named Sloppy Joe, but the most notable references were in regards to Manwich, which received a shoutout from the likes of Zombieland and The Colbert Report. The greatest Manwich reference, though, came via a running gag on Futurama, where the character Hermes shouted, “My Manwich!” on multiple occasions after having his Manwich destroyed or stolen. 

I couldn’t confirm this with Skinner, but it seems that this joke became so popular that it actually influenced Manwich’s advertising — in 2003, Manwich began running commercials with a Jamaican spokesperson singing a song about Manwich, which echoed Hermes’ Jamaican accent. Given that Hunt’s came from California and the Sloppy Joe may have come from Iowa, Florida or Cuba, nothing about a Sloppy Joe is Jamaican except for the Hermes reference.

In either 2006 or 2007, March 18th appeared to become “National Sloppy Joe Day.” (If this sounds vague, it’s because I couldn’t find anything that originally decreed March 18th as Sloppy Joe Day, but the internet seems to suggest it started around then). Aside from this, notable Sloppy Joe history has been a bit scant over the past decade or so, with the exception of a characteristically random scene in Family Guy that saw a mongoose kill the Griffin family by tricking them into thinking it was Sloppy Joe night. 

The biggest highlight of the last 10 years came in 2016, with that viral clip of an adorable three-year-old named Declan who was refusing to eat Sloppy Joes, declaring that “it’s poop.” The boy’s mother, Jamie, tells me that, “Since a young age, Declan has always thought Sloppy Joes and taco meat were ‘poop.’ Eventually, he did try Sloppy Joes about a year and a half after that video was made. He got a few bites in, but it still wasn’t his favorite. He will eat tacos now, but he still won’t eat Sloppy Joes.” 

Perhaps, in time, young Declan will learn to appreciate Sloppy Joes. Yes, they’re bizarre and messy, and a rather substantive argument can be made that they do indeed look like poop, but they’re also full possibilities. From their storied, ambiguous origins to them reaching the heights of fame in popular culture, Sloppy Joe sandwiches have made an impact time and again. Declan is seven-years-old now, which means he’s just entering the prime Sloppy-Joe-eating age and maybe, next time he sees “Sloppy Joes” on the cafeteria menu, he’ll give them another shot. Because if, like the song says, a lunch lady and a Sloppy Joe can live happily ever after, I’d like to believe that just about anything is possible.