How to Whip Up the Most Decadent Sloppy Joe You’ve Ever Laid Eyes On
Ernest Hemingway might've helped invent the American classic, but Jason Goldstein seems to have perfected it
Like the three-letter name it bears, the Sloppy Joe is about as basic and uncomplicated as it gets. That said, the origins of the simple sandwich — which boils down to ground beef and some variation of tomato sauce served on a bun — are much more complex.
According to one slightly boring school of thought, the Sloppy Joe gets its name from a messy meat concoction a cook named Joe prepared at Ye Olde Tavern Inn in a Sioux City, Iowa, in the 1930s. While that is certainly possible, we choose to believe the Sloppy Joe’s other origin story, if for no other reason than it partially incorporates famed writer Ernest Hemingway as its author.
As the story goes, Hemingway, a drinker with a writing problem, began to frequent a divey bodega-turned-bar in Havana that was a favorite of U.S. servicemen stationed nearby. The owner, a Spaniard named José Abeal y Otero, was nicknamed “Joe” by his American customers and was eventually convinced to name his messy watering hole Sloppy Joe’s. Around the same time, Otero began dishing up a messy meat sandwich along with his drinks. When Hemingway, who was sometimes joined at the bar by the likes of Errol Flynn and Graham Greene, returned to Key West after one of his pilgrimages to Cuba, he convinced his friend Joe Russell (from whom he would buy illicit bottles of Scotch during Prohibition) to change the name of his scuzzy saloon from the Silver Slipper to Sloppy Joe’s. Soon, Russell began serving a loose-meat sandwich too — and it’s still on the menu, for $10.
“The Americanized version was born out of what was being served in Havana,” Donna Edwards, the brand manager for the Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, told Mashable in 2015. “We took it and Americanized it by making it the Sloppy Joe and not just a loose-meat sandwich. But it’s something that definitely developed from that idea.”
Though its development story isn’t as complicated as the original Sloppy Joe’s, Jason Goldstein’s take on the childhood favorite is actually fairly complex. When working on his slow-cooked version of the sandwich, Goldstein, the author of The Happy Sandwich: Scrumptious Sandwiches to Make You Smile, he decided to swap out beef for chicken and incorporate the North African hot chili-pepper paste harissa as well as honey into the standard tomato-based sauce.
“I had all the usual Sloppy Joe recipes in mind, but I wanted to make it slightly different, and I think the harissa and the honey are really the keys,” Goldstein, who also blogs under the cognomen Chop Happy, tells InsideHook. “Harissa gives you that spicy, citrusy, tomato-y flavor you don’t get elsewhere. It’s unique and has a deep, rich flavor that saves you lots of time because it makes things taste like they took hours and hours to make. The honey balances it out as the sweetness counteracts some of that spice. It’s almost like the harissa and the honey are dancing together in the slow cooker.”
Honed over the course of the pandemic in his kitchen, Goldstein’s Sloppy Joe is a little more refined than the standard meaty sandwich, but it is designed to help evoke the same feelings of comfort and nostalgia the original offering tends to deliver.
“The Sloppy Joe doesn’t get the credit it deserves,” Goldstein says. “Everyone loves it and wants to eat it in some form, and you can make a Sloppy Joe out of anything. We take life way too seriously, myself included. We get in the grind of life and the grind of work and the grind of our goals. I feel like the Sloppy Joe is a sandwich that brings you back to the simpler things in life. We need to spend more time as adults coming back to simplicity.”
Craving the sandwich that a man in Havana may have dreamed up? Here’s Goldstein’s recipe.
Jason Goldstein’s Honey Harissa Sloppy Joes
- 2 pounds ground chicken
- 3 scallions (chopped)
- 1 large red onion (chopped)
- 3 cloves garlic (chopped)
- 1 tablespoon ginger (grated)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 can diced tomatoes (14.5 ounces)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 4 tablespoons harissa paste, divided
- 1 cup of spinach + 2 handfuls spinach, divided
- 3 tablespoons honey
- ½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
- 4 hamburger buns, toasted
- 1 handful spinach
- Feta cheese, crumbled
- Place the chicken, scallions, onions, garlic, ginger, tomato paste, tomatoes, salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons of harissa paste and 1 cup spinach in the slow cooker. Mix until combined well.
- Cover and cook on low for six hours.
- Once cooked, add the honey, feta, 2 tablespoons of harissa paste and 2 handfuls of spinach to the slow cooker and mix everything together.
- Slather mayonnaise on both the top and bottom of each bun.
- Place a pinch of spinach on the bottom bun, add a large scoop of sloppy joe, and top with crumbled feta. Close sandwich and enjoy. Freeze leftover for up to six months in a Ziplock bag.
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