Welcome to American Sandwiches Week, a celebration of the mighty sandwich through the lens of Americana.
A New Jersey childhood set me loose in the world with a naive set of culinary assumptions: First, that there will always be a nearby diner that’s open 24 hours. Second, that Taylor ham is a universally enjoyed breakfast meat. Third, and most pernicious, that a Sloppy Joe is a double- or triple-decker sandwich comprised of two deli meats, Swiss cheese, slaw, and Russian dressing.
It was when I relocated to the Midwest for college that my Sloppy Joe world turned upside down. The truth—that a Sloppy Joe, according to the rest of the universe, is a sandwich of warm ground beef and tomato sauce—rattled me to my core. It happened during a discussion in which a friend from Iowa extolled the virtues of loose meat sandwiches, which he described as, you know, like a Sloppy Joe. I held up a stop-right-there hand signal—“Sloppy Joes? You mean turkey and roast beef on rye with slaw and dressing?” While he explained the commonly accepted definition of Sloppy Joe, my jaw slackened lower and lower. My sandwich worldview would never be the same.
As the Berenstain Bears conspiracy proves the existence of collective false memories, it seems New Jersey has for decades wholly hallucinated its own version of Sloppy Joes. Not only does the New Jersey Sloppy Joe share absolutely nothing in common with Sloppy Joes as the rest of America understands them, but the sandwich itself does not exist by a single name anywhere else.
And that is a crying shame.
New Jersey Sloppy Joes are a wonderful sandwich—hearty and messy and tangy and savory. They were a staple of my family’s summer hangouts and birthday parties, the sandwich platter of choice for feeding large crowds at retirement bashes and graduations. My mom ordered them from Maple Kosher Meats in nearby Vauxhall, New Jersey; I also remember trays from Millburn Deli. These sandwiches were so piled-high with deli meats—pastrami and turkey, or roast beef and turkey, or ham and corned beef, etc.—and so slick with Russian dressing-covered slaw that eating just one small square of sandwich was a two-hand, five-napkin affair. A lone, frilled toothpick struggled valiantly to keep the layers intact.
Several delis claim to have originated the Jersey version of the Sloppy Joe, mostly vocally Town Hall Deli in South Orange, which opened in 1927. Per the legend, the mayor of next-door-suburb Maplewood visited Havana, Cuba, in the mid-1930s, where he encountered a layered rye-bread sandwich piled with ham, cow tongue, cole slaw, Swiss cheese, and creamy dressing at a Hemingway-frequented bar called Sloppy Joe’s. When he returned stateside, he asked the owners of Town Hall to recreate it—thus was the Sloppy Joe born. (Bizarrely, this same bar is also cited as the inspiration for the ground-meat-and-tomato version of Sloppy Joe’s. Everyone must have consumed too many mojitos to be able to recall what, precisely, was piled on those fabled sandwiches.)
Origins aside, the deli meat-cheese-slaw version of the Sloppy Joe now occupies a geographic distribution that’s relatively small, compared to more widely loved sandwiches like the sub or the BLT. While this means I have to spend hundreds of dollars on a plane ticket to taste it, I’ve made peace with this fact. After all, I do the same for Taylor ham.