The Sloppy Joe: An American classic with roots in — Cuba?

HAVANA, Cuba — Whether cooked up by Mom, ordered at a diner or served in a grade-school cafeteria, few dishes are more quintessential to American childhood than the Sloppy Joe.

But the messy sandwich’s roots may actually be in a place that is, as they say, downright un-American: Cuba.

The story — or at least one story — of how the Sloppy Joe became an American staple begins with a rowdy bar, Havana nights and none other than Ernest Hemingway.

Back in 1917, a Spaniard by the name of José Abeal y Otero opened a bar on the corner of Agramonte and Animas streets in Havana, according to brochures at a recently re-launched version of his establishment here in the Cuban capital. José was nicknamed “Joe” by his English-speaking patrons.

He wasn’t exactly a neat freak, so tipsy regulars took to calling him “Sloppy Joe.” They also convinced him to make that the name of his bar, according to company literature on display there today. “Joe,” meanwhile, began serving a loose-meat sandwich to go with his bar’s libations.

Hemingway visited the bar, eventually becoming a common presence there and one of its many celebrity regulars. It’s the famous author who is the sandwich’s apparent link from Cuba to the United States.

In the 1930s, an American named Joe Russell ran a bar called the Silver Slipper in Key West, Florida. Hemingway — famously a patron of many bars — became a regular at Russell’s place. According to the Key West establishment’s official history, Hemingway convinced Russell to change his own establishment’s name from The Silver Slipper to Sloppy Joe’s, just like the bar he knew in Havana. (Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928, and had a lifelong love affair with the island.)

Russell began serving a loose-meat sandwich as well. According to Donna Edwards, brand manager for the Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, that menu item was at least partially inspired by the similar offering at the Florida restaurant’s Cuban counterpart. But Russell thought to give the simple dish a catchy name.

“The Americanized version was born out of what was being served in Havana,” Edwards told Mashable. “We took it and Americanized it by making it the Sloppy Joe and not just a loose-meat sandwich. But it’s something that definitely developed from that idea.”

So what do you think — gospel truth or transnational urban legend? It’s certainly more detailed than any other origin story out there.

To help shed more light on the issue, we called in an expert.

Competing myths

Bee Wilson, the author of “Sandwich: A Global History,” says it’s hard to nail down the exact genesis of any sandwich, the Sloppy Joe included.

“I found in particular that there would be competing myths for many of the great American sandwiches,” Wilson told Mashable, of the research done for her book.

“I think the confusion over origins is partly because people get so emotionally attached to particular sandwiches and come to associate them with particular delis and can’t then countenance the idea that they might have actually first been eaten somewhere else,” Wilson said via email.

After Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara led the Cuban revolution in 1959, Havana ceased to be a hotspot for carousing Americans. The Sloppy Joe’s bar there closed soon after.

Meanwhile, Russell’s Key West joint has changed hands a few times. But today business is brisk and the Sloppy Joe is its most popular item. Edwards told Mashable that Sloppy Joe’s goes through 20,000 pounds of ground beef per year while selling about 165 of its eponymous soggy sandwiches every day.

Weep not for its Havana counterpart, however.

After a long hiatus, the bar and restaurant was refurbished and reopened in 2013, on the same corner of Agramonte and Animas in what is now the heart of Havana’s tourist district. It’s owned by Habaguanex, a group that, true to modern Cuba’s socialist identity, runs a host of tourism businesses in the capital while funneling their profits back into local social and infrastructure projects.

The Sloppy Joe’s in Havana today is cleaner than the joint that earned its name nearly a century ago, but it’s been restored to look like the hangout that was once frequented by the likes of Hemingway, Errol Flynn and Graham Greene.

A long mahogany bar seats patrons before hundreds of bottles of liquor, most prominently Havana Club rum. Seated at more than a dozen tables, tourists sip cocktails and look at photos on their phones. On a recent trip to Havana, I visited the re-opened original Sloppy Joe’s. I ordered, of course, the sandwich that’s a classic memory from my American childhood.

It came true to form, with saucy loose meat overwhelming two pieces of bread. Attached to a toothpick protruding from the top piece of bread was a miniature Cuban flag.

By Sam Laird, Mashable

May 21, 2015


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