Ramblings from a Boston Boy stuck in New York
When Is A Sloppy Joe Not A Sloppy Joe?
6-December-2010Posted by on
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up in a fairly traditional Italian household. You know the drill – pasta at least three nights a week, church on Sunday morning, no meat on Friday during Lent, and a mother who was both skilled in filling your belly and being able to guilt trip you into doing anything she wanted you to do. All of our family activities involved some kind of Italian food – lasagna, meatballs and sausage, stuffed shells, etc. I was never really exposed to foods from other cultures – our family friends were mostly Italian or so Americanized that their menus had lost any major ethnic influence.
You can imagine, then, how my world opened up when I met and started dating a Jewish girl from Long Island. I had never known a Jewish person, let alone been exposed to Jewish culture or food. That girl became my wife and over the years she and her family have exposed me to many different foods that are traditional to an Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Her family origins date back to Russia and the cuisine that her family has been raised on is very earthy – lots of potatoes, mushrooms (sorry, I still can’t stand them), carrots and other root vegetables. Slow roasted meats are also part of their general cuisine. I’ve been exposed to some great foods – I really enjoy matzah ball soup, latkes, and french toast from a good challah bread. I’ve also been introduced to some traditional Jewish foods that just don’t sit well with my palate – gefilte fish and pickled herring immediately come to mind.
We have both, however, run into something that neither of us had heard of. On a recent trip to New Jersey for a family Hannukah party, we were told that part of the menu was going to be Sloppy Joes. It seemed like an odd choice to me, but I was looking forward to it. Who doesn’t love a Sloppy Joe? Can you really go wrong with ground meat in a tomato based sauce, maybe some diced onions and peppers, on a hamburger style bun? When dinner was presented, however, I didn’t see anything that resembled a Sloppy Joe. There was chicken, biscuits, French fries, latkes, and a deli sandwich with corned beef, turkey, pastrami, coleslaw and Russian dressing. As we were eating dinner, I asked my wife’s aunt what happened with the Sloppy Joes and she gave me a funny look. “Um, you’re eating it right now.” What? This deli sandwich was a Sloppy Joe? Surely, you are mistaken? I was so confused. So was my better half.
After some back and forth, it came out that this sandwich is what is known as a “Jewish Sloppy Joe.” Huh? What confused me even more was that they also called the ground beef sandwich referenced earlier a Sloppy Joe. How confusing! Of course, I did a little research when I got home. Supposedly, this sandwich is native to northern New Jersey and is not necessarily a Jewish food. More specifically, Town Hall Deli out of South Orange, NJ claims to be the birthplace of the Sloppy Joe Sandwich. According to their website, Sloppy Joes are:
. . . a truly perfect concoction of tastes and textures made with two meats of your choice, cheese, coleslaw, homemade Russian Dressing, all neatly and precisely assembled between 3 layers of specially-baked light Pullman rye, first sliced the long way and then in eighths.
Regardless of whether or not Town Hall Deli is really the originator of the Sloppy Joe Sandwich or not, this sandwich is definitely a local delicacy. It seems to thrive only in Northern New Jersey as evident by the fact that even people from southern, central, and western New Jersey have no idea what this sandwich is. Personally, being a person who dislikes both coleslaw and Russian dressing, I did not like this sandwich. I thought it was too wet, sweet, and mayonnaise-laden. I typically like all the meats that were placed on our sandwich and rye breads ranks amongst my favorites but the coleslaw and Russian dressing were just too much.
Regardless, it never ceases to amazes me how different areas of the country have different culinary quarks, but this one ranks up near the top of head scratchers. Everyone I know knows what a Sloppy Joe is (remember the old slogan – A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal), but this – this odd mix of meat, bread, and side dishes – is just odd.
Does anyone else have any other foods that are named something that would contradict the social norm of another food?