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Good Eats: Oct. 19, 2005, edition

If Spam can have a museum, not to mention a hit Broadway musical, why can't loosemeats?

After all, the Sioux City signature sandwich surely qualifies as one of America's regional food classics. It begs for inquiry, illumination and, yes, a little respect.

Think of the illusive recipe that continues to spark debate. Did it contain pickle juice? Paprika? Was the tasty beef ground chuck or ground round? What about those buns? Were they soft or chewy?

Imagine the waxed paper said to have held each beloved loosemeat. Contemplate the unforgettable name "loosemeat," a word that never fails to raise an eyebrow among the unknowing -- much like Sioux City's FAA identification code: SUX.

"Where did the loosemeat come from?" "Is it true that the beef was freshly ground daily at the Sioux City Stockyards?" "How can I get the recipe?" "How can I be sure it's the real recipe?"

In more than 20 years of writing food for The Journal, I've fielded more questions about loosemeats than any other topic. More than rhubarb pie, more than zucchini bread, even more than Lutheran Church basement hot dish recipes.

The Loosemeat Museum could get to the bottom of the story -- cut through the myth and settle questions of origin and preparation. It could be a repository for oral history about the original loosemeats and showcase images associated with the ultra-Siouxland sandwich. Each summer it could host the Loosemeat Festival that would draw former Siouxlanders back for a fabulous trip down memory lane. "Loosemeat: the Musical." Why not?

The possibilities struck me recently after visiting with former Sioux Cityan Bruce Johnson (now of Phoenix) who was in town with his wife June to visit brother and sister-in-law Doug and Ruby Johnson. After dinner one evening, the couples' conversation moved to loosemeats. Bruce wanted the recipe -- the real recipe -- to take back to Phoenix. Where could he get it? That's when Ruby called me.

I was happy to chime in, but I had to admit I didn't know it all. In fact, most of my loosemeat stories, including accounts of the original recipe's whereabouts, have prompted some readers to tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about. The good thing? Out of the controversy I've pieced together a story drawn from many accounts. I offer it with this disclaimer: the loosemeat legend lives!

Born on Jackson Street

A Sioux Cityan by the name of David Heglin ran a restaurant at the corner of 14th and Jackson streets many years ago. When he died in the early 1930s, his wife, Anna, stepped in and named the eating establishment "Tavern No. 1." Anna served tavern sandwiches until Abe Kaled came to Sioux City about 1935 and bought the business. Abe dressed up the name and it became "Ye Olde Tavern No. 1." He continued selling taverns.

Abe's wife died and he later married Bertha, "Bert" for short. This union, it seems, sparked the golden age of loosemeats.

Doug Johnson remembers helping Abe carry hefty portions of ground beef up from cold storage in the basement and into the kitchen where it was cooked in a big and very heavy saucepan. The meat appeared to be "already mixed with something -- seasonings maybe," says Doug who was a Woodrow Wilson Junior High School student at the time.

I don't know if the meat was ground round, ground chuck or something fattier. I also don't know if the meat was freshly ground to order each day at the Sioux City Stockyards, but I certainly leave room for that tantalizing possibility.

After the meat was browned, it was brought "out front" and dumped at the top of a slanted steam table. From all reports, the slanted steam table was essential to the loosemeat flavor. It kept the meat warm and allowed the fat to drain away. When a loosemeat order came in, a quantity of ground beef was drawn to the hot center of the steam table where it was pressed with a spatula to remove yet more grease.

The meat was then lifted with the spatula and tucked into a bun prepared with mustard, sliced dill pickle and sweet onions. The buns were said to be firm and chewy -- different from the soft Wonder Bread variety. Loosemeats were greasy only when staff got in a hurry and didn't allow sufficient steam-table time.

It all sounds so simple, yet controversy abounds. I invite Siouxlanders or former Siouxlanders, to chime in. Let me know if I have it right. Let me know what you remember about those famous sandwiches that were the makings of so many happy memories.

Meanwhile, take a look at the tavern recipe that ran in the 1988 Journal Cookbook. It's followed by one of four tavern recipes Bruce and June Johnson collected when they were in Sioux City, as well as other ground beef classics courtesy of the National Cattlemen's Association. Marcia Poole can be reached at {M3mpoole@cableone.net or The Journal Living Dept., 515 Pavonia St., Sioux City, Iowa 51102.

Tavern Sandwiches

1 small onion, diced in one-half cup water*

One-half cup catsup

One-quarter teaspoon salt

One-quarter teaspoon pepper

One-quarter teaspoon chili powder

1 pound ground beef

1 teaspoon mustard

Combine diced onion, catsup, salt, pepper and chili powder. Bring to boil. Add ground beef and cook for five minutes (breaking up beef). Add mustard. Stir well. Serve on buns. Recipe submitted by Mrs. Ned Castle, Correctionville, Iowa; 1988 Journal Cookbook. *Some cooks slice onions under cold running water to prevent tears.

Taverns

1 cup finely chopped onions, browned

1 tablespoon steak sauce

Salt and pepper

One-half cup water

2 pounds lean ground beef

1 tablespoon catsup

Brown ground beef; drain. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 35-40 minutes, stirring frequently. Serve on buns. Source: Shaare Zion Synagogue Women's League Cookbook, 1964

Sloppy Joes

1 pound ground beef

1 small onion, chopped

Three-quarters cup prepared barbecue sauce

One-quarter teaspoon salt

One-eighth teaspoon pepper

4 hamburger buns, split

American cheese slices, green bell pepper rings (optional)

Brown ground beef with onion in large nonstick skillet over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes or until beef is not pink, breaking beef up into small crumbles. Pour off drippings. Stir in barbecue sauce, salt and pepper; heat through. Serve in buns with cheese and bell pepper. Makes four servings. Source: National Cattlemen's Association

Classic Meatloaf

One and one-half pounds ground beef

1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

1 cup soft bread crumbs

1 egg

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, crushed

One-half teaspoon garlic salt

One-quarter teaspoon pepper

Topping:

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Measure one-quarter cup tomato sauce; combine with topping ingredients. Set aside. Combine remaining tomato sauce with remaining meatloaf ingredients in large bowl, mixing lightly but thoroughly.

Shape beef mixture into an 8-by-4.5-inch loaf on rack in broiler pan. Spread topping over meatloaf. Bake in 350 degree oven one hour to medium (160 degrees F.) doneness, until not pink in center and juices show no pink color. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting. Cut into slices. Makes 6 servings; 294 calories per serving. Source: National Cattlemen's Association

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