Loose Meat Sandwiches
I have this very strange dream of cooking all the American sandwiches. Why? Because sandwiches are delicious, not horribly complicated, and they’re a great way to learn about the history and geography of the United States. Old and new, East and West, North and South, red states and blue. It’s a project I’ve set out to do several times and then been too broke or busy to follow through with it, but in this time of bubbles and divisiveness it seems like a noble cause. After all, who can hate a sandwich? They’re both yummy and apolitical. Maybe sandwiches are just the thing we need to heal the rifts in our country and bring us together again – at a picnic table, in the sunshine, passing the napkins, talking about the things we all agree on.
Big T is tablespoon, small t is teaspoon, c is cup.
Loose Meat Sandwiches.
My, those sound appetizing, don’t they?
Loose meat sounds like something one would hear in a WW 2 era short movie about syphillis. “Loose lips sink ships, but loose meat sinks fleets! Stay clean, soldier!” Actually I guess that would be a film for sailors since they’re the ones who travel in fleets but you get my drift.
It’s really a Midwestern sandwich. The loose meat sandwich is primarily an Iowa thing. That’s right, we’re going to Iowa, people! Beware pool tables and fast talkin’ flim flam men. Or you’ll have trouble my friends, that’s right trouble, with a capital T that rhymes with b that stands for burgers. Trouble!
The first time I heard of a loose meat sandwich was on Roseanne. Roseanne and Jackie opened up a restaurant called “The Lanford Lunchbox” that sold loose meat sandwiches. I, being pathologically interested in food and Americana, was intrigued by the existence of a vaguely dirty-sounding sandwich I’d never heard of before. I didn’t have a computer then, though, and in none of my bazillion cookbooks was there a recipe for “loose meat” so the concept was filed away for future reference. Years later, I learned what a loose meat sandwich was and that Roseanne and Tom Arnold (who she was married to for a little while before they both became major political figures in this horrific future in which we now dwell) had even opened up their own loose meat diner in the small town of Eldon, Iowa which promptly went out of business as celebrity-owned restaurants tend to do.*
“That’s all very interesting,” you are saying, “but what IS a loose meat sandwich?” And you’re right to ask because it isn’t just a Roseanne thing, not even a little. In fact, this type of sandwich isn’t always or even usually called a loose meat sandwich. I decided to call the article that because it’s a pretty good description of what the sandwich is all about (as Roseanne Connor put it, “It’s like a sloppy Joe, only without the slop.”) and because I thought I could get a couple jokes out of it, but just like Satan or The Dude, it goes by a lot of names. This exact same kind of sandwich, depending on where you order it, is called a tavern (I actually did have a recipe for taverns in my cookbooks, but didn’t connect the dots) a Maid-Rite, a Canteen, a loose meat, and may have originally been called a steamed hamburger – you’ll see why when we get to the recipe. (Contrary to Principal Skinner’s claims, steamed hams is apparently not an Albany OR a Utica expression. Fake News!)
Just like the origins of many sammies, the true backstory has been lost to the mists of time but was for sure being served by 1927 at two restaurants whose names have become ubiquitous with this kind of sandwich, Maid-Rite and Canteen Lunch In The Alley both of them Iowa institutions. Maid-Rite has gone on to become a franchise with restaurants across the Midwest; Canteen Lunch In The Alley went a different way and is just one microscopically tiny restaurant, seating only 16 people. But they both serve the same type of sandwiches – seasoned, loose ground beef on a bun.
It’s such a cultural touchstone there was even an episode of The Good Wife where a presidential candidate tries to eat a loose meat sandwich in every county in Iowa in one day (an adventure called “The Full Grassley”) and gets caught on camera spitting one out.
Now, the loose meater is outside my experience as a Northwesterner-descended-from-non-Iowan Midwesterners (identity politics is getting SOOO out of hand, isn’t it?) So I based my original recipe on this and this.
But as so often seems to happen I went rogue and ended up with something based mostly on what I had in the cupboard that day.
Interestingly, I’d tried to perfect this recipe on several occasions over the last year, and it never came out quite the way I thought it ought to, speaking as a person who lives 2000 miles from Iowa and whose entire knowledge of how this is “sposed ta” taste is by looking at it for .03 seconds on one episode of Roseanne that I watched 25 years ago.
Sandwiches are mighty nice that way. You can break the rules as needed/desired and they’re generally still pretty edible. Don’t do that with a souffle tho.
Step One: The Ingredients
For whatever reason the hand of God intervened since I assume S/He knew I was writing this article and all, and my loose meat sandwich turned out extra good this time. Better by far than the other times I tried to make it. It’s not fully authentic, so do be aware that if you want it authentic, there’s a squirt of mustard and possibly ketchup involved.
When I’ve made this in the past I had always had Worcestershire sauce. I was out. I was intrigued by the pickle juice idea mentioned in one of the recipes I read and rolled with it. I think the Worcestershire sauce might have been a good addition so please do consider adding it.
1 ½ cup ground beef (the real loose meat sandwiches are made with a special finely ground beef that we mere mortals cannot obtain, so please break up your ground beef really well while frying it to avoid big lumps)
¼ cup pickle juice (I didn’t even taste this in the final product, so use more if you’re like super into pickle flavor)
3 T Johnny’s French Dip Au Jus Concentrate (This is that stuff you get in the bouillion department of your grocery store, but it’s a liquid and comes in a small jug. I started with 2, and 2 was good. But then I decided 3 would be better and I was totally right. I suspect 4 may be spectacular but I panicked and lost my nerve.)
½ can of beer (original recipe called for a WHOLE beer. That seemed like a waste of half a beer to me so I only used half and drank the other half. And I used Rolling Rock, beer of champions)
OR ½ can of broth or water if that’s the way you roll. (Be careful with the broth as it will add salt and the Johnny’s French Dip Concentrate and pickle juice will already have added some salt.)
And a healthy sprinkle of dried minced onions. Most of the recipes I saw called for dried onions and that seemed more in line with what a place called “Canteen Lunch In The Alley” would probably use. You could use fresh, but I have Sjogren’s Syndrome which means my eyeballs have formed a mutual suicide pact and are slowly desiccating. Chopping onions makes me not only cry the precious few tears I have left to me, but end up on the floor of the kitchen in a fetal position writhing in pain. So I avoid using them whenever it’s possible to avoid using them.
And that is IT. I skipped the ketchup and mustard in the original recipes when cooking the meat. I felt in the other versions I made, that they were too…well, ketchup and mustardy I guess. The pickle juice did whatever it is the ketchup and mustard were supposed to be doing in the original recipes without being so blatantly obvious about it. You can add them if you’d like, but I really really feel that the final incarnation was by far the best.
Oh yeah and you’ll also need buns. More about that below.
Step Two: Cooking the meat
Now here is the part where the possible original name of steamed hamburgers makes some sense. You cook your meat (remember, chopping it up really really well during the browning process to get it in the tiniest bits you can manage) and then add either the pickle juice/beer combo (if pickle juice and beer isn’t being drunk as a beverage by hipsters somewhere right this very minute, I’m a monkey’s uncle) or the water or broth, along with the onions and Johnny’s and Worcestershire sauce if using it. And toss in anything else you think sounds good. Dump this concoction into your pan and simmer it, continuing to break up any chunks of meat you come across. Simmer for at least 10 minutes, adding more liquid if you need to, and adjusting the seasonings till you get it however you like. Once you get it tasting the way you want it, and you’ve hit the 10 minute mark, let the liquid boil away till the meat is somewhat dried out and no longer dripping with its own fluids.
Step Three: Buns
I had cheap buns on hand and they were more than adequate (boy if I had a nickel for every time I typed that.) But I suspect that with some experimentation and expenditure, you could come up with an even better final product with quality buns. Pretzel buns, Hawaiian buns, sourdough. I would not toast them though. I suspect the loose meat sandwich is meant to be totally squooshy and smishy and angel-food soft through and through.
Step Four: Cheese
Not just any cheese. Velveeta. You. Have. Got. To. Have. Velveeta. It melts in nanoseconds and becomes this creamy salty delectable goo. And because the meat is loose instead of pattified, the cheese (??? I guess you could call it that???) oozes into all the nooks and crannies and becomes an integral part of the sandwich. I know, Velveeta seems so gross and chemically. But you only live once, my peeps, and it’s been scientifically proven that every serving of Velveeta you consume only costs you 17 hours off the end of your life. And then the preservatives in it gives you 3 hours back, so it’s a net loss of 14 hours. Totally worth it.
Step Five: Sandwich Assembly
Be warned. It’s gonna take less meat than you think. Don’t put a massive huge spoonful of meat on your bun because most of it will just fall off when you bring it to your lips. Start off using about 1/8 as much meat as you think you’re going to use in the long run and try it. If it doesn’t seem like enough, you can always add more, but err on the side of less at first till you get a feel for how meaty it ought to be.
If you weren’t careful to let all the juice boil off the meat during Step 2, you’re going to want to use a slotted spoon because an excess of juice will totally waterlog your bun.
And of course Velveeta it up.
Then you take that loose Velveeta-topped meat on a bun, and it is loose, so don’t eat it while wearing your wedding dress or anything, and top it like you’d top a hamburger. The first one I went old school, a little ketchup, a little mustard, a pickle, and then the second one I did with Thousand Island dressing and they were both super good.
Yeah. I eat two burgers usually. I need my energy for sandwich-related research.
I doubt this needs to be said but lettuce and tomato should not come anywhere near this thing.
Step Five: Post-Sandwich Analysis
Most people would say they are their own harshest critic. But I would never say that because my husband is my harshest critic. And he took one look at this triumph of loose-meatery and and said “What’s this crap?” I explained what it was and reminded him that he’d had this meal before. He didn’t remember. Then he said “What’s wrong with regular hamburgers?” which was what he said the other times I made loose meat sandwiches too. I replied saucily, “Nothing is wrong with regular hamburgers, but this is what I made, so enjoy, Sport.” He tasted it tentatively – not entirely unlike a streetwise coyote nibbling at potentially baited meat – and said “Huh, this is like a totally different thing from hamburgers and barbecues”. (I’m getting to barbecues next for those wondering WTH is a barbecue)
And I chose to take that as a major compliment because denial is not just a river in Egypt.
I’m going to pause for a moment to explain what IS wrong with regular hamburgers. They take a LOT of meat for what you get and when you cook hamburgers they shrink up and become really thick. (unless you get those ready made kangaroo-meat patties that I don’t particularly care for.) I’m sure there is a trick to this that everyone should pretty please now share with me in the comments but in 30 years of hamburgery I’ve never figured out how to prevent this travesty from occurring. So every homemade burger I make takes about a half a pound of meat and the whole thing ends up roughly 410 feet high by the time I put the pickles on it. But the loose meat sandwiches only took a spoonful of meat each and they were easy for even the smallest kiddo to eat. I got way more sandwich bang out of my 1 ½ lbs of meat buck than I do from hamburgers (which take me 2 ½ lbs of meat for everyone in the family to go into a meat coma). I even had some meaty leftovers for lunch the next day. When I make regular hamburgers we usually end up running out of burgers while people are still hungry.
This seems to be a real plus of the loose meat sandwich – you can spread it a lot thinner and rely on the buns as cheap filler – every mom’s dream. “Hmmm, how can I fit MORE starch into this meal?”
And, my husband was right, it really DID seem like a different thing entirely than burgers and barbecues (coming soon to an article near you!!) That’s always a good thing if you have to eat a fair amount of ground beef due to budgetary constraints.
I consider the Loose Meat Experiment not only a great name for a band, but a stunning success.
But you may wonder, as someone apparently did, what might happen if you took the general loose meat principle and then added some type of, oh I don’t know, tomatoey sauce to it.
Let’s go north and a little bit west from Iowa to North Dakota and see what we find there.
The state sandwich of North Dakota is called the barbecue, or slushburger depending on what part of the state you’re from. My husband’s family is from North Dakota, the part that says barbecue, and they introduced me to this crazy concept. We have eaten them at every family get-together at least once and usually multiple times for the past 28 years (“Ye Gods!” as they say in The Music Man. That’s a long time).
Now, you know the old stereotype about how people from the Midwest are really unadventurous eaters? Mostly it’s totally untrue but when it comes to North Dakotans, it is totally TOTALLY true. These people barely eat anything. They don’t eat salads. They don’t eat nuts. They don’t eat fresh fruit. They don’t eat seafood. They don’t eat hard boiled eggs (no deviled eggs at holiday get-togethers, that’s blasphemy among my people). They don’t eat lasagna or quesadillas or bagels and cream cheese. They don’t drink iced tea OR hot tea. Despite living in Washington State for 50 years they never even TASTED Chinese food, let alone Japanese or Thai. They don’t even eat ramen. Ethnic cuisine for these folks starts with garlic bread, moves on to spaghetti, and ends with totally German Toaster Strudel for dessert (they don’t eat sauerkraut) or the also totally German Black Forest pudding if it’s a special occasion – instant chocolate pudding mixed with a can of cherry pie filling mixed with a carton of Cool Whip.
Please pass me the Toaster Strudel.
I share all this because it really explains a lot about this sandwich.
Step one: Ingredients
1 can Campbells condensed Tomato soup (do not get the store brand, it matters.)
1 lb ground beef per can
Pepper (barely any)
Several packages of the cheapest, whitest buns you can obtain.
Pickles and onions if desired. (sauteed onions are darn good here, and they don’t eat butter. So onions sauteed in margarine, if you can bear it and want authenticity.)
That’s it. I’m not leaving anything out. This sandwich is simplicity itself.
The above ingredients can be multiplied infinitely to feed hordes of very nice people who talk like Marge Gunderson and are frightened of chow mein.
Step two : Sandwich assembly
Just like with the loose meaters, barbecues take a lot less meat than you might expect. You want a low meat to bun ratio. Maybe a generous tablespoon per cheap white bun. Start off with less, give it a whirl, and you can always add more to the next one.
They don’t ever put cheese on them, which I thought was very strange until I tried cheese on them. No cheese. Pickles or sauteed onions (for reasons I have never been able to comprehend, they don’t eat any vegetable that did not emerge from a can, but do eat shocking amounts of onions. Not raw onions, though, cooked onions only.)
Step Three: Suggested side dishes
Let me introduce you to the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad Pik-Nik Sticks. http://pik-nik.com/shoestrings.htm Pik-Nik Sticks are these sort of chip-ish potato shards that slice your gums bloody and get lodged in your throat.
My in-laws never had a get together without Pik-Nik Sticks. Then they saved the containers and put everything into them. You could never be quite sure if you were about to open up Pik-Nik Sticks or Christmas tree ornaments or kitty cat treats or lawn fertilizer or really old Amway laundry detergent someone talked them into buying ages ago.
Step Four: Sandwich analysis
Counterintuitively, these barbecue thingies are pretty darn good. That’s why I been making em lo these many years. If you try one sandwich in this article, make it this one. Have a Fargo party where everyone dresses up and talks funny and eats authentic North Dakotan cuisine like barbecues and Pik-Nik Sticks and then ends up violently dead at the end.
That’s a joke, of course. North Dakotans don’t have parties.
And that brings me to Sloppy Joes. I know a lot of you have been muttering “but what about Sloppy Joes” this whole time and I would say that good sandwiches come to those who wait.
Apparently it wasn’t only North Dakotans who wondered about the hamburger and tomato sauce combo. In Iowa they did the same exact thing which was probably an obvious thing to do since they already had mounds of loose meat lying around.
Allegedly, there was a cook named Joe (shocking reveal!) at a diner in Sioux City, Iowa who brewed up the first Sloppy Joes. Some also claim the Sloppy Joe may have been invented in Florida or Cuba but eff them though because Florida has other sandwiches we’ll get to a different day and Cuba isn’t even in America I don’t think. IDK whatever, my geography is rusty, that’s why I’m doing this project. Look, Cuba, Shumooba, Iowa NEEDS this. What else does it have going for it? Corn and loose meat and Buffalo Bill Cody, who is pretty cool but I suspect he’s considered problematic now and even if he isn’t, he no longer draws the crowds he did back when he was alive.
I’m gonna let Iowa have Sloppy Joes.
Again, I suppose because we’ve always made the good ole North Dakota BBQs, I have never mastered the art of the Sloppy Joe. So I used this recipe as my baseline because the Pioneer Woman seems even more All-American than moi (see?) and I had most of the ingredients.
I was slightly chagrined by the level of demonic possession discussed by the Pioneer Woman in her Sloppy Joe recipe because it seemed to play into negative stereotypes of Christianity, but then I remembered literally every teenage girl went through a huge phase where they were super into spirits and witchcraft and voodoo and this includes me. That is literally why they made the movie The Serpent and the Rainbow – to part demon-obsessed teenage girls from their babysitting money. It’s not a Christian thing, it’s a teenage girl thing, I promise.
Let’s just say that some believe Sloppy Joes are tools of the devil and leave it there.
Step One: Ingredients
The first thing I did different was I used less bell pepper because I wanted to make fajitas and I only had the one. So instead of using one whole entire pepper I just used ¼ of one (I eat fajitas, because I am not from North Dakota) and a half an onion because of the Sjogren’s Syndrome thing and it was all I had the endurance for that day. I put in extra garlic because I grow my own and I usually have a lot of it and for whatever reason chopping it doesn’t hurt my eyes. But this worked out well because it was just the right amount of pepper-n-onion-n-garlic-y.
I also decided to skip the butter even though I suspect it would be good, because butter is super expensive right now and it seemed wasteful.
I only used 1 ½ lb meat instead of 2 ½, because that seemed like a lot of Joe. I altered the seasonings accordingly. I am told that there is a variation on a Sloppy Joe called a Sloppy Jane which has ground turkey since we gals are always watching our waistlines and we’re apparently too stupid to realize that the calories in the bun and the sloppy sauce vastly outstrips any marginal difference between beef and turkey. I reject the Sloppy Jane concept out of hand due to the utter grossness of sexism and the utter grossness of ground turkey. I promise, women love beef. (If I had a nickel for every time I wrote THAT…)
Also, I was still out of Worcestershire so since the Johnny’s French Dip stuff tasted good in the loose meat sandwich, I tossed some in.
1 ½ lb ground beef
¾ c ketchup
2 T mustard (I used regular mustard instead of dry as called for by the Pioneer Woman. The idea of that much dry mustard in a recipe made me nervous. No wonder PW thought Sloppy Joes were possessed with that level of dry mustard put into them – that would make me hallucinate too.)
1 T brown sugar
1 T Johnny’s French Dip Au Jus concentrate (and/or Worcestershire)
1 T chili powder
Butt Ton Garlic (This is why the metric system will never work in America)
¼ bell pepper or more
½ onion or more
Now, it’s optional to stop here, but when I gave it a taste, I found it pretty thin and ketchupy. I think it would be even thinner and ketchupy-er with the Worcestershire in there. So I took the optional advice of the Pioneer Woman and added:
1 T tomato paste
Better, but it still seemed a little thin and ketchupy. So since actual humans had to eat this slop…py Joe, I added my emergency package of Sloppy Joe seasoning (I actually have a package of Sloppy Joe seasoning behind glass in my kitchen, because you just never know) and that thickened it right up and made it taste a lot more like I felt like it ought to.
1 package of Sloppy Joe Seasoning (You’re right that it was cheating. The Devil made me do it.)
Step Two: Brown Yer Beef
You don’t have to be so religious about breaking up your hamburger meat during the browning process as you did with the loose meat sandwiches. Some chunks give it texture. But you do have to be religious enough to avoid the demonic possession apparently Sloppy Joes are prone to. Be slightly religious. Not like, weird clothes religious.
My advice is, add the onion and pepper and garlic early on so they get cooked within an inch of their lives by the time the beef is cooked through.
Step Three: Add the sauce
Once your beef is browned and your vegetables no longer resemble anything resembling produce, add the rest of the sauce ingredients (and may I suggest just banking on that emergency packet of Sloppy Joe seasoning??) and stir like a half a cup of water into it. Then simmer the concoction for a while till the water evaporates and the sauce thickens up and everything turns a kind of uniform burnt sienna color.
If you find those instructions too vague, the link from the Pioneer Woman has pretty good step by step instructions with pictures and everything because she’s really writing a recipe and not just using a cooking article as a jumping off point for stream-of-consciousness humor.
Step Four: AvenJoes, assemble!
Same old, same old. Beef on a bun. Pioneer Woman toasted her buns so maybe that would be a good thing. But none of the other sandwiches we’ve made so far are improved by a toasted bun. Your call.
Step Five: Monday-Morning Quartersandwichbacking
My harshest critic did not much care for these. Recall, he was fed North Dakota barbecues from birth and so that’s what he’s come to expect in the goop-on-a-bun department. Plus, he doesn’t like ketchup so it was actually a majorly dick move of me to serve these to him.
I will leave no stomach unturned in my quest to cook our nation’s greatest sammies.
I will confess that I did kind of like them. I will further confess that sometimes I find the aforementioned barbecues to be blander than I prefer. But these Joes were pretty darn ketchupy. Maybe even a little TOO ketchupy. Unfortunately, most of the Sloppy Joe recipes I found online were ketchup-based. A few others used tomato paste instead, but I recall ages ago trying out one of those recipes and it wasn’t good either. So I’d like to float the intriguing concept of taking the general Sloppy Joe principle of chili powder, bell pepper, and onion, and using the barbecue principle of the tomato soup instead of either ketchup or paste (you’d have to adjust the seasoning accordingly, as tomato soup is already somewhat sweet, and less vinegary than ketchup…but that may be a good thing).
I suspect Sloppy Joes made with tomato soup would be a winning recipe but just haven’t had time to put it all together yet. And I probably never will since my children didn’t like them either. At the end of the meal there were three plates with small piles of picked-out peppers and onions neatly stacked on the margins. It’s the North Dakota DNA.
If all this is just a hair too complicated for your liking and/or your family is also very picky, there is a nuclear option.
Billy, don’t be a hero. Make a Manwich.
Speaking of “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”, this video is the most spectacularly American thing I’ve ever seen even though somehow this band is British. Drummers singing is what the US of A is all about, according to Phil Collins. There is also whistling and a hyperactive smoke machine and a complete rejection of militarism. Remember when America used to reject militarism? Nah me either, it was before I was born, like for a few weeks right in the middle of 1969 and that’s precisely when Manwiches were invented by the good people of ConAgra Foods.
Therefore I declare Manwiches to be the sandwiches of peace.
“Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” should be the official ad campaign of Manwiches. It couldn’t be worse than this ad campaign the Manwich people got in big trouble for.
Anyways, Manwich is this saucy stuff that comes in a can and you mix it with some meat to make a really super easy Sloppy Joe. One time it went on sale and I bought it because tomato soup wasn’t on sale that day and I found my kids liked it and I liked it too. It tasted like nostalgia. The Harshest Critic didn’t like it because it didn’t taste like North Dakota, so I never bought it again but if you have fond memories of school hot lunches, brew up a batch of Manwiches, cover them with a thick layer of unusually greasy Cheddar cheese shreds, and serve with some overboiled corn, canned pears, and a very small carton of room-temperature milk and it’ll take ya right back again.
I am really enjoying this project so far, so stay hungry for more!
*Tom Arnold claims they didn’t actually go out of business, but decided to pack it in because their sandwiches never tasted as good as the Canteen Lunch In The Alley sandwiches.