Food history: loose meat sandwiches

I was reminded of the existence of loose meat sandwiches with the semi-recent The Good Wife episode.

Which reminded me of the restaurant specializing in loose meat sandwiches that Roseanne ran in Roseanne.

Which made me wonder where this odd lunch creation came from in the first place…

Also known as a steamer or a tavern sandwich, the loose meat sandwich is a fairly simple creation: crumbled hamburger with seasonings, served on a bun, often with mustard and dill pickles, sometimes also with onions and/or cheese. They’re similar to a sloppy joe, but without that ketchup-based sloppy joe sauce. 

Our featured food is widely believed to have originated in the Ye Old Tavern in Sioux City, Iowa in 1924 by Dave Higgin. According to HistoryCultureByBicycle, there is a possibility the meal was invented in Missuloa, Montana, four years earlier in 1920, but there is no actual documented proof.

Two years after the official loose meat sandwich made its mark in history, butcher Fred Angell of Maid-Rite reportedly created his own version of a loose meat sandwich. The name came from a deliveryman’s quote, “This sandwich is made right.” The Maid-Rite chain was developed the following year.

In 1934, Ye Old Tavern was purchased by Abe Kaled, who renamed it Ye Olde Tavern, and created his own recipe for Higgin’s loose meat sandwich. Using buns from the Iowa Baking Company, Kaled and his wife turned loose meat sandwiches into a success.

In the 1970s Ye Olde Tavern closed and was replaced by Gus’s Family Restaurant, who yet again reinvented the sandwich; Gus’s closed in 2012.

As we can see, there are a few variations of the loose meat sandwich. I haven’t been able to find a true and verified recipe for the original loose meat sandwich, but I’m willing to bet it’s one of those dishes where less is more. Good, quality ingredients, with – I’m guessing – very few spices or add-ons.

One more fun fact to step away with: Roseanne and Tom Arnold really did own a loose meat sandwich restaurant, in Iowa, at the same time her television character was running the identical type of business.