A classic born in Iowa: loose meat sandwich

Loose Meat Sandwich

Loose meat sandwich, July 2012

Recently I became interested in loose meat sandwich recipes when looking for a variation on sloppy joes that didn’t use ketchup. During my research I learned that the loose meat sandwich originated right here in Iowa, where I live.

History of the Sandwich
The loose meat sandwich is sometimes known as a steamer or tavern sandwich.  Some say it originated at Ye Olde Tavern in Sioux City in the 1920s, and others claim it was at Maid-Rite in Muscatine in the same decade. This sandwich may be the older brother of the sloppy joe and is simply crumbled hamburger with seasonings served on a bun, commonly with mustard and dill pickles. Other add-ons are ketchup, onion, and cheese.

Loose Meat Sandwich at Canteen Lunch
During my quest I happened to be reading Iowa native and pie baker Beth Howard’s memoir, Making Piece, in which she mentions the Canteen Lunch in the Alley in her hometown of Ottumwa. The diner was started in the 1930s, and Howard had fond memories of their loose meat sandwich. Another claim to fame is that this diner was the inspiration for the Lanford Lunch Box on the Roseanne TV show. Roseanne’s then-husband in real life, Tom Arnold, is also from Ottumwa.

Canteen Lunch in the AlleyOf course I had to make the 90-minute drive to try the sandwich. The tiny diner has no tables, only about a dozen stools at a counter, and serves only their version of the sandwich, called the Canteen, along with old-fashioned malts, soda, and any kind of pie you can think of (alas, not homemade, but their pies are made fresh by the local Hy-Vee grocery store). The service is brisk and no-nonsense. You tell the waitress what you want on your sandwich and ten seconds later she hands it to you wrapped in paper. It is a good sandwich, and it’s gone before you know it. When you’re done, you go to the register and say what you had and they total it up.

The place is retro-charming and might make a memorable lunch stop if you visit the American Gothic House in nearby Eldon. Howard lives in the iconic house and runs the Pitchfork Pie Stand from her living room on summer weekends.

Developing My Recipe
I found a replica recipe and adjusted it to my liking. My version of the sandwich has bacon fat for added flavor, but you could use some other type of oil. (Lately I started saving the fat from my all-natural bacon and storing it in the freezer.) The recipe also has celery, garlic, mustard, and apple cider vinegar. A friend who went with me to the diner liked my sandwich better. Of course, homemade is always best!

Do you make a loose meat sandwich? I’d love to know what’s in yours. Here are two versions with potential Iowa credibility:

For gluten-free buns, try Udi’s Classic or Whole Grain hamburger buns.

Eileen's Loose Meat Sandwich
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Recipe type: Main Dish
Author:
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 6
Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon bacon fat
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 cup finely diced celery (1 or 2 stalks)
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard
  • Water to cover, about 1 cup
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. In a large skillet (cast iron if available) over medium heat, melt bacon fat and sprinkle in salt. Add ground beef and brown, breaking up with a wooden spoon or spatula into crumbles as it cooks. When meat is just cooked through, add the celery and garlic. Cook over medium to medium high heat until slightly caramelized and some of the bits are dark brown. Dain off extra fat, if necessary.
  2. Add sugar, vinegar, and mustard and stir to combine. Add just enough water to cover the meat mixture. Lower the heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until most of the water is cooked away. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Lightly toast buns or warm in foil in the oven. Serve with mustard and dill pickle.
Serving size: 3 ounces, sandwich filling only. Calories: 168; Fat: 7g; Saturated fat: 2g; Unsaturated fat: 0g; Carbohydrates: 2g; Sugar: 1g; Fiber: 0g; Protein: 23g; Cholesterol: 67mg.

 

(Recipe adapted from “The Blue Mill Tavern Loosemeat Sandwich” at food.com.)

Shared at Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free Slightly Indulgent Tuesday.

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4 Responses to “A classic born in Iowa: loose meat sandwich”

  1. Donna Siemann says:

    In the late 50’s we lived in Battle Creed, Iowa. A new dairy queen came to town and had a tavern sandwich which we have not been able to have since we moved to California in 1957.
    Do you think this recipe is the one they would have used. We would sure like the recipe for that sandwich.
    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Donna Siemann
    Downey, California

    • ebaran says:

      Donna, I’m sorry that I don’t know the answer to your question. In my post there are a few links to other versions (just before and just after my recipe) that you might try. Hope you find what you’re looking for!

  2. N.A.S. says:

    I also make these…’steamed hamburgers’ as we call them. The tradition has been passed down in my family for 4 generations. In fact, my great-grandfather was the first to create it, before the ‘tavern sandwich’ even existed. He started actually selling them in 1920 in Missoula, MT. Therefore, the place of origin unfortunately isn’t Iowa, but Montana.

    • Eileen Beran says:

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing. Very interesting! Here is a site that suggests that documentation about Missoula as the source is not readily available (see asterisk). Feel free to come back and share any links you might have that will help get the word out and set the record straight.


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