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
4.3 from 3 reviews
Recipe type: Main Dish
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 6
  • 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
  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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22 Responses to “A classic born in Iowa: loose meat sandwich”

  1. Joan Kirby says:

    Hi Eileen,
    My family grew up on a farm near Ottumwa and we
    loved going to the Canteen.
    I buy ground round and add salt & pepper a little
    water and steam the meat until it is all cooked stirring to mix it up. I turn off the burner & cover the pan and let it steam and cool.
    We add our condiments at the table NO other flavors,
    just like the Canteen does it today.

  2. JOHN MOORE says:

    Dear Ellen
    I was having a nostalgic moment, and remembering the loose meat sandwiches my mother used to make for me. She called them Canteens. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon your website, and read about the “Canteen Lunch” My mother lived in Ottumwa and met my father there in business college. I know in my heart that this is the place where she got the recipe.

    I’m going to go make some right away. Thanks for the recipe.


  3. Lori A Spurgeon says:

    “Loose meat sandwiches” are all different. Born and raised in Ottumwa nothing beats a Canteen. If you start with 80/20 no other fats are needed. The natural flavor of the beef with a touch of salt after it’s cooked with your favorite toppings is perfection. Case in point I’m a mayonnaise girl but they don’t offer that at Canteen but the flavor profile is so good it’s not needed. The atmosphere of literally rubbing elbows with total strangers is a great conversation starter.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about canteen lunch in the alley.

  5. Scott Pierce says:

    Update for the Canteen lunch Alley in Ottumwa Iowa. They are back making homemade pies. Made by local bakery that consists of a mother daughter and grandmom team.

  6. Kari says:

    The Canteen is the BEST! They are making their own pies again too! My Dad grew up on these 50 years ago and now they are my favorite treat!!!

    • That is so great! When we ate there a couple of years ago the pies were from the local chain grocery store, so we skipped them and had awesome homemade pie at the American Gothic house.

  7. […] known as a steamer or a tavern sandwich, the loose meat sandwich is a fairly simple creation: crumbled hamburger with seasonings, served on […]

  8. Mike says:

    I make a loose meat BLT using bacon ends. My wife showed me how her family in Romania would use and cook the bacon ends slowly in its own fat in a deep sauce pan until the desired crispness is reached. Then the meat is removed and drained on paper towels like regular bacon. We then scoop the bacon on to a hamburger or other bun with the usual mayo, lettuce and tomato. Like you we save the bacon grease in the freezer for later use.


  9. […] Here is a bit of history of the Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich […]

  10. 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!

      • Nan says:

        Born in Burlington…..parents moved when I ws2 months old. Have any historic, cool taverns in that area please. Thought I’d check out my birthplace now that I’m 63 ;). Thx!

        • Hi Nan, Unfortunately, I’m not at all knowledgeable about the historic sites in Burlington. I’ll have to do some exploring there sometime–It’s just an hour or so from where I live.

    • Becky Pogar says:

      My memory of this sandwich is also from a Dairy Queen; the one on Morningside Avenue in Sioux City. I worked there in 1993 and it was our best selling sandwich. I moved in ’94 and haven’t had one since! I have often tried to duplicate the recipe, but we used a pre-mixed, packaged powder that made all the difference. Thanks to modern technology, I’ve searched the internet for that recipe or the pre-packaged powder for sale, but no luck. I know that the DQ where I worked no longer sells them so I’m kinda stuck! Anyone know anything about this? I’m going to try this recipe next: http://www.food.com/recipe/the-blue-mill-tavern-loosemeat-sandwich-87075

    • Brian M Kimbrell says:

      When I was a kid in council bluffs Iowa there was a dairy queen in the mall that had that same sandwich. Never been able to find it since. But they were excellent!

  11. 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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