What started as a simple question turned into the search for the most famous sandwich in the United States! We rounded up the crew and set out to find the best sandwich in America. Join us as we dive into our must eat list of some of the most iconic sandwiches you will find in the US.
Fact or Fiction? The sandwich was given its name from a 18th century
earl who ate these creations to avoid leaving the gambling table.
It is commonly thought that John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich created what arguably is the most popular dish ever to come out of a kitchen. In reality, however he didn’t create the dish; he merely gave his name to it.
While slices of bread with meat and cheese had been eaten since the dawn of a loaf of bread, the name “sandwich” apparently originated one evening in 1762 at the Beef Steak Club: a private gentlemen’s club above Covent Garden in London, England.
The earl was at a gambling table and called to his servant to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread so he could remain at the gaming table without breaking for supper. An inveterate gambler, necessity was the mother of invention; the sandwich enabled him to keep gambling with one hand while he ate with the other (coincidentally sushi rolls were invented for the same reason).
However, the idea was not totally conceived on a whim. Montagu was inspired by the diplomatic trips he took while serving as a government minister to the Mediterranean, where he noticed Greeks and Turks eating meat and other things stuffed into pitas. As the nobleman ate his snack, his gambling companions noticed and thought: what a fabulous idea. “I’ll have the same as Sandwich.” And the name stuck.
Food history can be murky but this anecdote might actually be true, as a record of the event exists in print. No less an authority than Edward Gibbon, the author of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” puts his weight of concurrence on the story. On November 24, 1762, Gibbon wrote in his journal of his surprise at seeing a score or two of the noblest and wealthiest men in the land seated at gaming tables while supping off cold meat inside slices of bread.
A decade later, the French travel writer Pierre Jean Grossly wrote about how wealthy Englishmen went about their lives. He observed that diplomats, ministers and noblemen would pass 24 hours at a gaming table so absorbed in play that their only sustenance would be a piece of meat between two slices of toasted bread which they ate without ever quitting the game. “This new dish grew highly in vogue during my residence in London, it was called by the name of the diplomat who invented it – Sandwich”.
While the Earl of Sandwich story is interesting, the principle of bread and filling probably dates to around 9000 B.C. when permanent settlements were established in the Middle East and hunter gatherers began to plant and harvest grain.
These grains became the first breads: unleavened flat breads that were baked over an open fire. They also served as edible plates holding roasted meat or fish from pot to mouth.
The first recorded sandwich in history was made by Rabbi Hillel who lived in Jerusalem in the 1st century B.C. Observing the Passover ritual of eating bitter herbs on matzo he added a sweet filling of apples and nuts seasoned with cinnamon with a second slice of matzo. The practice (continued today) is known as the Hillel sandwich.
“Diplomats, ministers and noblemen would pass 24 hours at a gaming table so absorbed in play that their only sustenance would be a piece of meat between two slices of toasted bread.”
A Ham and Cheese Cuban Sandwich
Research has concluded that from then onward, travelers and field workers carried meat between two slices of bread long before the name “sandwich” gained standing with the public. None of this is surprising; in fact it would be more surprising if slices of bread had not been used to hold meat, cheese and other fillings. Yet it took the VIP status of the Earl of Sandwich to give it a name.
Would you believe that Americans eat more than 300 million sandwiches per day? Yep! We consume almost as many sandwiches as we have people. As you have read, the sandwich has a long history, but it was not readily accepted in America. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the sandwich was a mainstay in England.
Check Out Our Favorite South Carolina Breakfast Sandwiches!
In America, not so much. A recipe did not even appear in an American cookbook until 1837: a ham sandwich with mustard on lightly toasted bread.
Why did the sandwich go uncelebrated in our country for so long? It seems early American cooks avoided culinary fashion from their former rulers. And remember, the name “Sandwich” represented English nobility and that’s something the new nation wanted to forget.
However, once memory faded, we embraced the sandwich and “invented” some of the tastiest sandwiches in the world.
From the Cheesesteak to the Reuben to the Po Boy, Americans have created a full repertoire of delicious, iconic sandwiches. Here is our list of America’s most iconic sandwiches: a description, brief history and some of our favorites near and far.
This is not a ranking nor an in depth listing of restaurants serving these iconic sandwiches. This is an introduction and an overview. Possibly, at a later time, we will dig a little deeper as we have in our breakfast sandwich article and our lobster roll article.
A little methodology, these are our parameters: a hamburger is a marvelous sandwich but it is one deserving of its own guide, and the same holds for hot dogs and tacos and burritos (which, in 2006, a Massachusetts judge ruled were not sandwiches at all). Open-faced sandwiches are not sandwiches.
Gyros and shawarmas are not sandwiches. The bread encasing is neither split nor hinged, but wrapped. So let’s talk about classic American sandwiches (yes, some had “foreign” influences) that we have come to enjoy and love.
THE SANDWICH – thinly sliced pieces of rib-eye or chopped steak, caramelized onions, melted American, Provolone or Cheez Wiz (just one), on a long hoagie roll
The History Of The Cheesesteak Sandwich
Legend has it that Pat Olivieri invented the cheesesteak sandwich in the 1930’s. He and his brother, Harry, operated a food cart in south Philadelphia, primarily serving hot dogs and fish cakes. One day, in 1933, Pat was bored of eating his own limited menu and implored Harry to go to a nearby butcher and come back with some beef that they could quickly cook up and have for lunch.
He returned with thinly sliced ribeye. Pat “frizzled” the steak with some onions on the flatop and then crammed it into a bun. On that very day, right on the spot, was the beginning of the cheesesteak sandwich (but no cheese yet). The alluring smell of beef and onions attracted the attention of a regular customer, a cabbie, who requested the off-menu item for himself.
Word spread through the cabbie rumor mill, and drivers from all over the city soon visited the food cart for steak sandwiches.
By 1940, the brothers had enough money to buy a brick and mortar store and named it “Pat’s King of Steaks” (still only a steak sandwich). That location, at 1237 East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, is still in operation today.
It’s a city institution and part of food history. At the new location, the brothers continued to make their signature steak sandwich: no longer in a hot dog bun but in a crusty Italian roll from a local baker. Cheese was added to the mix by a manager, Joe Lorenzae, in the 40’s.
Originally, American cheese was used, but later it was Cheez Wiz, which was created in 1952. A rival, Geno’s, opened in 1966 across the street and to this day it is a fierce rivalry – think Hatfield / McCoys, Ali / Frazeer, Yankees / Red Sox, Clemson / USC.
Donkey’s Place – No less than Anthony Bourdain claimed the cheesesteak better than Pat’s or Geno’s. And as Smokey Robinson sang, “I Second that Emotion.”
1223 Haddon Avenue
THE SANDWICH – a true American icon, the Club sandwich consists of bacon, cooked chicken or turkey, tomato and lettuce sandwiched between three slices of toasted bread with mayonnaise and usually a toothpick or two to hold it together.
The History Of The Club Sandwich
The Club sandwich is closely linked to hotels and resorts as a popular menu item; its name is believed to come from its popularity at country clubs. The most popular theory about its origins says that it was invented in 1894 at the Saratoga Club House (a gambling club) in Saratoga Springs, NY.
There is ongoing debate about using chicken versus turkey and while James Beard, the late American food historian and chef, favored chicken, turkey is more commonly seen in the sandwich these days.
J.G. Melon – Upper East side preppies have gathered here since 1972 (the crazy 70’s in NYC – Joe Namath, Plato’s Retreat, Clyde Frazier, Studio 54, Son of Sam, Disco) and it’s still standing. Basic, but satisfying, both the sandwich and the restaurant.
1291 Third Avenue
New York, NY
THE SANDWICH – sliced roast beef on a springy french roll that has been dunked in jus. Sharp mustard is encouraged, cheese is optional. Remember: if no jus, no dip!
The History Of The French Dip Sandwich
The origins of the French Dip sandwich are somewhat uncertain (as usual) and there are a variety of stories (of course). But the foremost theories involve two restaurants in Los Angeles who both claim to be the creator.
The first and most widely accepted as the originator is Philippe’s The Original. According to the story, in 1918, Philippe Mathieu was making a sandwich for a police officer and accidentally dropped a roll in a pan filled with roasting juices.
The officer did not care and told Phillipe that he would take the sandwich just like that. The next day the officer returned with his friends and asked for dipped sandwiches.
There is some uncertainty of why it would be called a French dip, but just think, Philippe was French, he used a French roll, and the officer’s last name was French. The second restaurant that claims to have invented the French Dip sandwich is Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet.
Cole’s is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in LA. According to the restaurant, the sandwich was first made when a customer who had recent dental work complained that the bread was too hard for him to eat. So the owner, Henry Cole, dipped the bread into a pan of roasting juices in order to make it softer.
We may never know the inventor of the sandwich, but it is certain that people continue to enjoy it and you can have one today at both Philippe’s and Cole’s.
Grant Street Tavern – Wandered in after a Penn State v.Pitt football game and had a sublime, classic French Dip. Nothing else to say but: WE ARE!
310 Grant Street
THE SANDWICH – fried bologna (thinly sliced bologna or cut thicker from a slab), toasted white bread (for support), mayo or mustard. Plus sometimes lettuce, tomatoes and pickles to dress it up.
The History Of The Fried Bologna Sandwich
The creation of bologna was brought with the waves of German immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th century that settled in the Midwest and especially in Pennsylvania. They brought with them a mortadella type pork product and, seeing commercial opportunities, they diluted the rich, silky, culinary meat of their homeland and created a less expensive and more accessible meat.
Robert’s Western World – Self named Honky Tonk grill, Fried Bologna thinly sliced on Texas toast….what’s not to like?
If you are ever in Cincinnati, and have some time head over to the Great American Ball Park (home of the Cincinnati Reds) they have a mean fried bologna sandwich….I wonder if it fueled the Big Red Machine???
THE SANDWICH – American or cheddar (with variations), toasted in a skillet is the basic (and arguably the best), tomato or meat optional.
The History Of The Grilled Cheese
In the early 1900’s, a man named Jim Kraft was stranded in Chicago with $65.00 to his name. He purchased a mule, bought cheese wholesale and sold it to grocery stores and restaurants. He realized that a major drawback was spoilage as most groceries and restaurants did not have refrigeration. In 1915, Kraft invented a way to manufacture blended, pasteurized cheese called processed cheese.
The processed cheese could be transported across the country without spoiling. He patented his invention in 1916 and began selling Kraft cheese in blocks and grated. Mixing the grated cheese with a binder (such as salad dressing or mustard) allowed consumers to produce the first toasted cheese sandwiches. In 1949, Kraft introduced single cheese slices and, as they say, the rest is history.
24 Diner – Real simple – basic – but roasted tomatoes and avocado puts me quite near heaven.
600 North Lamar Boulevard
Joey Chestnut, an American Hero (hero is also a sandwich) holds the record for eating 57 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes (no beef brisket!!)
THE SANDWICH – fuhgeddaboutit! You know the routine….meatballs, sauce, bread, maybe melted cheese.
The History Of The Meatball Sub
Who knows? Meatballs in Italy are a whole different thing. Massive Italian immigration from 1880 to 1920. Guess what? In Italy, 75% of income was spent on food. In America? Only 25%! With the introduction of simple, home meat grinders, the Italian-American meatball was born. Street vendors started selling ground meat concoctions in the shape of a ball. Factory workers wanted a grab-and-go, so it made sense to stick it in a roll with some tomato sauce to keep it moist, and maybe some cheese.
How important is a meatball sub? Not sure if it’s worthy of our list? Remember the Friends episode when Joey confuses a car backfiring with a gunshot and dives to save Ross instead of Chandler because Ross is holding a meatball sub? That’s how important it is! Definitely worthy of the list!
Parm – Words are unworthy. A masterpiece.
248 Mulberry Street
New York, NY
THE SANDWICH – a grilled cheese sandwich consisting of Gruyere cheese (sometimes Swiss) and lean ham, between slices of crustless bread, fried in clarified butter.
The History Of The Monte Cristo Sandwich
A little borrowing on this one. It originated in a Paris cafe in 1910, but with little fanfare. Somehow it became a big favorite in Southern California. The earliest references are on a printed menu in 1941 from Gordon’s restaurant in LA. The Brown Derby, a hugely popular restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in LA, favored by movie stars, put it on their menu in 1949. In 1966, it appeared on the menu of the Blue Bayou restaurant on New Orleans Square in Disneyland, California, and has remained on the menu ever since.
Fat Albert’s – True to the classic, but with interesting tempura-battered bread, turkey, ham, swiss. For 35 years, the Monte Cristo has been this restaurant’s best selling sandwich.
1717 23rd Avenue
THE SANDWICH – for the uninitiated, a poor boy (aka po boy) is a sandwich that uses a 6-inch or foot-long baguette style bread, traditionally filled with roast beef or fried seafood (oysters, shrimp, crab), with pickles, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Nowadays, fill it with whatever you want – burgers, sausage, french fries.
The History Of The Po Boy Sandwich
In the late 1800’s, in New Orleans, there were fried oysters in a French loaf sandwich. In 1910, Bernice and Clovis Martin moved to New Orleans to work as streetcar conductors. In 1922, they opened a restaurant named Martin Brothers Coffee Stand specializing in French loaf sandwiches filled with anything the customer wanted. That said, they wouldn’t be referred to as ‘po boys’ until 1929, when the streetcar workers went on strike for four months leaving 1,000 workers without income.
The Martin brothers wrote a letter to the local newspapers saying they would give free meals to the strikers. Folklore has it that when one of the brothers saw one of the union workers walking in the restaurant he would yell, “Here is another poor boy.” Since the free meal became associated with the out of work strikers, the customary sandwich became known as a poor boy, and was ultimately shortened to po boy. The name has stuck.
Old Tyme Grocery – Fill your po boy with shrimp, oysters or catfish. Maybe add some pastrami or corned beef, and you will never be poor again.
218 West Saint Mary Boulevard
THE SANDWICH – corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, russian dressing, grilled buttered bread. Unlike revenge, a Reuben is not served cold.
The History Of The Reuben Sandwich
As a modern staple of New York Jewish delis, it seems natural that this is where the Reuben sandwich originated. Many claim that Arthur Reuben, owner of Reubens restaurant in Manhattan, invented it in 1944.
Allegedly, an actress named Annette Seelos (known for starring roles in Charlie Chaplin movies) came into the restaurant late one night and was famished. She asked Arnold to make her a huge sandwich, so he took ham, turkey, swiss, coleslaw and russian dressing and served it on rye bread and called it a Reuben special. But this wasn’t the Reuben we know today, was it? This brings us to Omaha, Nebraska, where food historians believe the first Reuben was constructed.
It was here that Bernie Schimmel ran the kitchen at the Blackstone Hotel (which his father owned) where there was a weekly poker game. One of the players, a local grocer named Reuben Kulafofsky, requested a sandwich with corned beef and sauerkraut. Schimmel, a European trained chef, put his own spin on it by draining the sauerkraut, mixing it with Thousand Island dressing and layering it with Swiss and corned beef on rye.
Then, the crowning achievement was to grill it. The earliest reference to a Reuben sandwich appears on the Blackstone Hotel menu in 1934, when it cost 40 cents. I think that settles the debate.
Court Street Grocers – a sweet, salty, fatty package of pickled meat and zingy condiments all inside a grilled caraway rye. Perfection.
485 Court Street
THE SANDWICH – a disc-shaped, sesame-seeded Sicilian loaf (sliced lengthwise), drizzled olive oil, olive salad (blend of green and black olives, carrots, celery, onions, black pepper, parsley), oregano, ham, salami, mortadella.
The History Of The Muffuletta
Created by Italian immigrants who arrived en masse in the Port of New Orleans from Palermo, Italy, in the late 1800’s. Many set up shop in the French Quarter, a home to a multitude of small businesses. Sicilian bakers there baked a loaf called a muffuletta. A grocer, Salvatore Lupo, opened Central Grocery and is credited with making the first Muffuletta sandwich in 1909. Farmers came to this shop and bought bread and sliced cold cuts and cheese and made a sandwich (which they usually ate standing up). Lupo decided to create his own sandwich and, based on the bread he used, it became known as the Muffuletta.
OUR FAVORITE (obviously)
Central Grocery and Deli – Salvatore Lupo is gone but the sandwich (and store) lives on.
923 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA
THE SANDWICH – pork, ham, swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, Cuban bread (yeast risen and enriched with a little fat, traditionally lard) usually pressed with a hot plancha (sandwich press).
The History Of The Cuban Sandwich
Fidel Castro, the Cha-Cha-Cha and Cohiba cigars come from Cuba. The Cuban sandwich….not so much. However, you must use Cuban-style bread. According to oral tradition, the Columbia restaurant in Tampa, Florida, or one of the smaller cafeterias in the Ybor section of the city, first served the sandwich more than a century ago.
Back then, it was made with pork, ham, turkey, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, sour pickle slices and mustard and served on a long loaf of white bread. It served as lunch for thousands of immigrant Cuban cigar workers and other Spanish, Italian and Jewish immigrants living in Tampa. Spanish speakers called it ‘Mixto’ because of the mixed meats. English speakers called it a ‘Cuban’ because that’s who they saw eating it.
Mi Cuba Cafe – This casual gem specializes in Cuban fare especially dishes of Cuban immigrants. Wonderful Cuban sandwich with all the traditional ingredients.
1424 Park Road NW
We will be brief, in as much as we have an intensive article posted with history and the best in South Carolina and elsewhere. Just remember, a classic breakfast sandwich must have egg, cheese and bread. Meat is optional. A meat, egg, bread combo might be a tasty sandwich but it is not a traditional breakfast sandwich without the cheese.
White Rose Diner – Classic breakfast sandwich – quality fried egg, gooey cheese, pork roll, on a hard roll served in a vintage, old-school diner. Loved it in my high school years. Last week the governor of New Jersey (Phil Murphy) stopped by for a breakfast sandwich.
1301 East Elizabeth Avenue
Again will be brief, as there is already an in-depth article about lobster roll history, best in South Carolina and the best elsewhere. For now, there are two types of lobster rolls. Connecticut style is warm, buttery chunks of lobster in a toasted buttery roll. Maine style is a cold lobster “salad” in a toasted, buttered roll.
The Clam Shack – Arguably the best Maine style lobster roll in the United States.
2 Western Avenue
Abbot’s Lobster in the Rough – Connecticut style in all its sweet and buttery glory
117 Pearl Street
THE SANDWICH – slow-smoked pork shoulder, shredded and mixed with a sauce and piled on a hamburger bun. Simple, right? Keep reading.
The History Of The Pulled Pork Sandwich
Arguing about barbecue probably takes up as much time as consuming it. Trying to sum up the varieties and traditions is a daunting task but we will do our best.
No one is really sure where the term ‘barbecue’ originated. Historians believe that the Spanish, upon landing in the Caribbean, used the word barbacoa to refer to the native’s method of slow cooking meat over a wooden platform.
By the 19th century, this cooking technique was well established in the American South. Pigs were prevalent in the region, as they proved far more resilient than cattle, and they became a primary source for meat. The pig became the staple of Southern cuisine, one hundred years prior to the Civil War.
In fact, plantation owners would release pigs into the woods to graze for months knowing that they could easily be hunted when food was needed. The pigs were semi-wild and tough, but all parts were kept and consumed. Festivals and gatherings were created around the slaughter of these pigs. Traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these get-togethers.
Over time, the pig became a “proud” staple of Southerners. More care was now taken to fatten and marble the pig. Pigs were not exported to the North and so they became a dedicated food source in the South. Slow cooked pork took front and center at church picnics, political rallies, plantation parties and more, but this is only part of the story.
Prior to the Civil War, plantation owners would give their slaves the cheap, tough cuts to prepare – boston butt, pork shoulder etc. The enslaved workers developed a slow cooking style over coals.
Being hungry, in most cases they would “pull the pork” off the coals when the meat was done and then could easily pull the meat from the carcass. This was the beginning of what we now know as pulled pork.
After the Civil War, BBQ restaurants began appearing in the South and proliferated in the 20th century. However, the offerings were usually ribs or ham (chopped or sliced) but nary a pull.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and in the Pee Dee section of South Carolina they did pull the meat straight off the hog, but they didn’t call it pulled pork. It was just called barbecue.
In the late 1970’s, pulled pork began appearing on menus in Louisville, Kentucky and Jackson, Mississippi. By the late 1970’s, Kroger supermarket was selling pulled pork in an area stretching from Tallahassee, Florida to Vincennes, Indiana.
The real boom came in the 1990’s and early 2000’s thanks to a renewed interest in barbecue among restaurants and backyard cooks. In 1994, an Associated Press article declared, “Pulled pork is a classic Carolina delicacy.”
Pulled pork is now firmly entrenched in our culinary tradition. It has become as ubiquitous throughout America as shrimp and grits is in South Carolina. Of course, there are many varieties of sauce: South Carolina (mustard), North Carolina (vinegar), Memphis (tomato), etc. But, as we said, this task is daunting.
Miller’s Smokehouse – A savory, smoky, pulled pork with delicious sides. Hope to get back to this small town.
208 North Penelope Street
THE SANDWICH – Pastrami and mustard (brown) on rye. That’s it! But it takes a village to bring pastrami inside rye bread….
The History of the Pastrami Sandwich
Many of us love pastrami, but we don’t know where it comes from, or how it got to the United States. If you don’t know, that’s okay; it’s origins aren’t entirely clear anyway.
For perspective, it’s important to note that pastrami isn’t a specific cut of meat like, say brisket. It is a cooking, brining and curing process that can be applied to different cuts of beef.
Whether barbecued or prepared in a deli, pastrami’s features are it’s thick bark (spices that form the edges), the smoke ring, and a tender pink interior. Where did it come from? There are two theories.
The most popular take is that pastrami was based on a Romanian dish called ‘goose pastrami.’ When Romanian immigrants couldn’t recreate pastrami in New York City, they refashioned the recipe and ingredients, creating a beef pastrami.
Some food writers believe that pastrami came to America through Texas, developed by Czech and German immigrants using European preserving techniques.
The New York City story seems to hold more credence. A Lithuanian immigrant, Sussman Volk, opened a small butcher shop in the 1880’s. He befriended a Romanian immigrant whom he allowed to store meat in his icebox.
The Romanian reciprocated by giving his recipe for pastrami. Volk began preparing the meat and selling it to his customers. It proved to be so popular that it allowed Volk, in 1888, to open a delicatessen at 88 Delancey Street advertising pastrami sandwiches on rye.
Katz’s Delicatessen – A New York institution for roughly 130 years. How do you stay on top for that long? This is how: fatty, navel-cut brisket which can withstand long stints in the smoker, cured with sodium nitrate enriched salt for up to four weeks. Then rubbed with a secret spice blend and then to the smoker for two to three days. Finally, boiled and steamed. Now it’s just waiting for rye bread to soak up the juice with a swipe of spicy brown mustard. Don’t ask for any other condiments, you won’t get them.
205 East Houston Street
New York, NY
Do you know how good a Katz’s pastrami sandwich is? If you’ve seen the movie You’ve Got Mail, with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, they were in Katz’s eating pastrami sandwiches when Meg had her O—–!
THE SANDWICH – ground beef, onions, sweetened tomato sauce, and seasonings served on a hamburger bun.
The History Of The Sloppy Joe Sandwich
This is going to take some time. Some foods are stuck with unfortunate names. Other foods, though delectable, look pretty terrible. Guess what? The Sloppy Joe is afflicted with both. When you think of a Sloppy Joe, you might picture a greasy spoon where Dagwood Bumstead eats his lunch in the comic strip Blondie. Yet, a Sloppy Joe has become an iconic American dish right up there with hot dogs and hamburgers.
But, where it came from is a long and winding road (thank you Beatles). As we have seen, food origins are subject to dispute. In order to try to figure all this out, we’re going to have to make stops in Iowa, Havana, Key West, and New Jersey. Iowa was home to loose meat sandwiches made from seasoned ground beef, piled on a bun with pickle chips, onion and yellow mustard.
This dish dates back to at least 1924 when it was served as a “tavern sandwich” at Ye Old Tavern in Sioux City, Iowa. This loose meat sandwich became popular and was put on the menu of The Maid-rite Diner (a chain with locations throughout Iowa).
Then, in the early 1930’s, a cook named Joe at a Maid-Rite in Sioux City, added tomato sauce and thus (arguably) created the first Sloppy Joe. In 1918, a Spanish bartender, Jose Abeal Y Otero, who had previously worked in bars in New Orleans and Miami, opened a bar in Havana called Sloppy Joe’s.
Actually, that was not its original name, but Americans began flocking to Cuba with the onset of Prohibition in 1920 and frequented Jose’s bar. Eventually, they anglicized his name to Joe and chided him on the messy state of his establishment, and thus a name was born. Americans (including Ernest Hemingway) loved the mojitos and daiquiris being served, but also requested food. Legend has it that Joe concocted a simple sandwich for his customers.
Using the classic Cuban dish, ropa vieja (beef mixed with tomatoes and spices), he decided to grind the beef to make an easier preparation. It became a mainstay on the menu, though there are no written references until the 1950’s.
Meanwhile, in the 1930’s, Hemingway was a regular patron at a bar in Key West, FL, run by Joe Russell, a fishing buddy (and also the model for Freddy, the bar owner and boat captain in the novel, To Have and Have Not). Russell’s bar officially opened (conveniently) on the day Prohibition ended, December 5, 1933. It was originally called the Blind Pig, and then the Silver Slipper, but (at Hemingway’s suggestion) it was changed to Sloppy Joe’s after the Havana bar that Hemingway loved.
The Florida Sloppy Joe’s began serving a version of the sandwich served in Havana, though once again there are no menu references to a much later date.
Now the story gets a little complicated. In the 1930’s, the Mayor of Maplewood, NJ, was a frequent customer at a deli, Town Hall, in neighboring South Orange. After returning from a trip to Cuba, where he had enjoyed a triple-decker tongue and ham sandwich at Sloppy Joe’s in Havana (what? no ground beef?), he asked the counterman to recreate the sandwich.
It became a triple decker of turkey, roast beef, coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye cut into artful squares. Thus began the New Jersey Sloppy Joe.
If you attend (or ever have attended) Seton Hall University in South Orange, no party is complete without a Sloppy Joe from Town Hall. So, ultimately, where did the Sloppy Joe originate?
Loose meat sandwiches were traditional in Iowa. Ropa vieja did not use ground beef. The Mayor was served something else. I would venture that Havana and Key West evolved over the years, but it’s a pretty good bet that the first Sloppy Joe (as we know and love it today) came from Iowa.
The Southern General – This sandwich is outrageous. Spicy ground pork and beef, red creole sauce, housemade pimento cheese, green tomato chow chow, all on grilled local honey white bread.
3157 Maybank Highway
John’s Island, SC
THE SANDWICH – toasted bread slices (Hawaiian), peanut butter, sliced or smashed bananas, and bacon (did not always contain bacon), grilled in bacon fat.
The History Of The Elvis Sandwich
Only fitting that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll has a sandwich named after him. Elvis did not cook, and his mom Gladys prepared this sandwich for him until she died in 1958. After returning from the Army in 1960, his meals were prepared by May Jackson Lanston until his death on August 16, 1977.
The Cottage Cafe – Elvis Lives! Peanut butter, bacon, banana jam. Hail to the King!
38 Calhoun Street
On the night of February 1, 1976, Elvis flew (with 2 friends) in his private jet from Memphis to Denver, CO. His destination: the Colorado Mine Company, a Denver restaurant.
His meal: “Fool Gold Loaf” – a single, warmed-up loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of grape jelly and a pound of bacon. An 8,000 calorie extravaganza! After dining he flew back to Memphis.
Behold the sandwich: humble, yet a culinary wonder of the world. As we have seen, sandwich history can be complicated but, just as with the sandwich itself, never boring. The naming of a definitive version can spark controversy and argument.
So, argue if you will, but remember, you can never go wrong with a sandwich. Grilled, smothered in sauce, or served with rich jus, you are always in for a taste experience. Enjoy!