Is Sioux City the home of cutting-edge cuisine?
Well, in the case of one fast food staple, yes it is.
According to legend, the loosemeat sandwich – crumbly globs of ground beef served sauceless, inside a hamburger bun – was created by a line cook at Sioux City’s Ye Olde Tavern back in 1924, anointing the one-of-a-kind concoction a tavern, named after his restaurant.
Two years later, Muscatine, Iowa butcher Fred Angell came up with a recipe very similar to Ye Olde Tavern’s classic tavern. The enterprising Eastern Iowan dubbed his loosemeat sandwich a Maid-Rite.
And for more than 80 years, a battle has raged on the loosemeat wars. Who has the best loosemeat: We, the rugged Westerners of the Hawkeye State or those snobby elitists on the Iowa’s Eastern side?
Alas, the battle’s recently become much more intense as a Maid-Rite Diner – the home of the Maid-Rite loosemeat sandwich – has opened its doors at 2509 Hamilton Blvd. in Sioux City.
So the Maid-Rite will now not only be competing against taverns made at its supposed birthplace (Gus’ Family Restaurant, 1322 Jackson Street, located at the site of the original Ye Olde Tavern, which has continued to make a loosemeat sandwich) but also with long-standing loosemeat variations like the Charlie Boy from the Miles Inn (2622 Leech Avenue) and Tastees from Tastee Inn & Out (2610 Gordon Drive).
A lesson on loosemeats
An unapologetically Iowa dish, the tavern has been called other names in other regions of the country. But, most are made roughly the same way: ground beef is prepared loose (as opposed to formed into a patty like a burger) and seasoned; then, it’s shoveled up by an ice cream scoop and dumped onto a hamburger bun that’s been schmeared with yellow mustard and, perhaps, an onion.
What can be easier than that, right?
The simplicity of the meal, in fact, is why taverns are so popular in school lunchrooms and at church get-together’s.
But the relative ease of its preparation should not be an indicator of the complexity of flavors contained within the two-halves of a hamburger bun.
When done right, a tavern can be a cacophony of flavors. The seasoning of the beef can make the sandwich salty, spicy or peppery, while the mustard give it a distinct tang and the pickle a terrific tinge of tartness.
A tavern versus a sloppy joe
OK, what’s the difference between a tavern and a sloppy joe, you ask?
A sloppy joe – popularized by novelist Ernest Hemingway after the sandwich turned up on the menu at his favorite haunt, Key West, Fla.’s, Sloppy Joe’s Bar in the mid 1930s – is simply loosemeat that’s been sweetened by a tomato sauce.
Devotees of the loosemeat describe taverns as being “a sloppy joe without any of the slop.”
The sloppy joe made its way out of barrooms and into the American dining rooms when housewives discovered the recipe at the height of WWII.
With ground beef rationed during the war, homefront home cooks were always looking for ways to stretch their meat supply. Adding a tomato sauce, they figured, made their ration of meat last a bit longer.
Inflation and the high cost of meat were the motivation behind Hunt’s introduction of its Manwich Sloppy Joe Sauce in 1969. The product’s combination of tomato paste, dehydrated onions, oregano, garlic, and red and green peppers in an aluminum can proved popular with busy housewives wanting to serve something fast and cheap to a generation of post-baby boomer kids.
Yet tavern connoisseurs know tomato sauce masks the taste of the meat, rather than enhance its flavor.
Taverns, done right, should taste of two things: seasoned, steamed beef and a light pool of grease.
Yup, you heard us right. In this health-conscious age, the tavern is a throwback to an earlier time.
Though the fat is drained from the loosemeat, a tavern should still be moist enough to make your cardiologist concerned.
An Iowa tradition for more than 80 years
Loosemeat’s lack of pretension is, in large part, the reason why it has endured for as long as it has.
The French can have their fancy baguette or coq au vin, the Brits their bangers and mash, but Iowans will always have a soft spot in their hearts (and belly) for the simple, little sandwich first made, according to legend, inside a small restaurant kitchen in Sioux City 87 years ago.
Long live loosemeat and long live the tavern!