Growing up, my bachelor dad could reliably make about three meals, and two of them came out of a can. One was Dinty Moore beef stew, a fine slop to be eaten off a chair while sitting on the couch, watching cartoons. The other was Manwich. For some reason Manwich was slightly rarer in our household, probably because it required the procurement of buns. As such, the sloppy joe has always been a treat in my mind, even though making them is as easy as putting meat sauce between bread. This is all to say I would like to eat more of them. Occasionally even at a restaurant.
The sloppy joe allegedly originated as a “loose meat” sandwich in Iowa, and turned into one of those recipes favored during the Great Depression and WWII because ketchup and tomato sauce could stretch limited ground beef into many meals or to feed many mouths. Now, it’s probably best known through Hunt’s Manwich — “fun piled on a bun,” as its ads called it. It’s marketed as mostly to parents, the sort of “everyone likes it” dinner that even the pickiest child will eat. It’s like if instead of eating leftover bolognese out of a Tupperware (god’s perfect meal), you put it on bread. It’s barely a recipe, it’s so obvious.
Plenty of childhood favorites have gotten the chef treatment over the years — the lobster mac and cheese craze, the fanning devotion to chicken tenders. But the mainstreaming of boutique burgers, alternative meats, and the chopped cheese does not seem to have resulted in a widespread resurgence of the sloppy joe. Yes, Superiority Burger has its Sloppy Dave, and White Castle has a sloppy joe slider. But where is the sloppy joe at BareBurger or Shake Shack? If Fuku has a vada pav, where is its keema pav?
I assume it’s because of the sloppy joe’s namesake quality. While burgers may fall apart by the middle, after the bun has sort of slipped forward and suddenly you have 75 percent of the filling left with only 25 percent of the bread, the fundamental premise is that the patty holds together. But the sloppy joe, despite telling you right there it’s sloppy, is also sort of deceptive. Unlike a platter of Ethiopian wat and injera, or a plate of barbecue ribs, which you know you’re going to need a wet nap for, the bun sort of tricks you into thinking the sloppy joe won’t leave you with sauce on your fingers. So when the filling inevitably falls out, and you need to sop it up with the bun or scootch it onto a spoon, it feels like a failure.
Maybe then it’s that, to enjoy the sloppy joe, we first need to accept mess, not reluctantly but radically. Part of the joy of eating is letting yourself indulge in all of your senses, including touch. To laugh when filling falls out of your sandwich, to stop trying to create the perfect “bite” with perfect ratios of each individual ingredient. The pandemic has made it hard to accept sloppiness. We’re all hyper-aware of our bodily fluids, the ways particles of ourselves drift toward each other. It will take a while for many to be able to eat together without thinking of microparticles and splatter. But when everyone is vaccinated and eating indoors is no longer an exercise in selfishness, imagine the glory of being able to suck sloppy joe off your fingers without worry. We should all embrace the messy when we can. So please, burger places, put a sloppy joe on your menu so we can celebrate.