New Jersey Sloppy Joe - Gastro Obscura
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New Jersey Sloppy Joe

It's not what you think it is, unless you're from the Garden State.

By way of school cafeterias, summer camp lunches, and family recipe books, the Sloppy Joe has made its way into the mouths of millions. Most individuals who are familiar with the term think of hot, tomato-y, loose ground beef smushed in a white bun. If this description matches your idea, ordering one from a northern New Jersey deli will leave you confused.

It will also leave you with a cold, double- or triple-decker rye bread sandwich stuffed with two different cold cuts, two slices of Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing slathered over coleslaw. This is what New Jerseyites recognize as the Sloppy Joe. Local delis whip up catering orders of the crowd-pleaser for birthday parties, graduations, and backyard celebrations.

It’s been this way since the 1930s, when Town Hall Deli in South Orange started serving up the signature sandwich. According to Town Hall’s website, the then-mayor of nearby Maplewood, Thomas Sweeney, inspired the creation. Apparently, Sweeney had just returned from Cuba, craving a sandwich from a Havana bar called Sloppy Joe’s, which happened to be a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway’s. Sweeney asked Town Hall Deli to re-create the dish (which originally featured ham, cow tongue, and Swiss) and it became an instant favorite. Other local establishments began serving their own versions, and the combination has since become a mainstay of New Jersey, and New Jersey alone.

Need to Know

Oddly enough, sandwich fans attribute the same bar in Havana with a potential origin story for the other Sloppy Joe, which has also been served since the 1930s. Both are heavy, saucy, and tangy, but structurally, they're entirely dissimilar. Neither pile of meat and bread, however, resembles a Cuban sandwich. 

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