celebrating a sense of place


The Sloppy Joe

By C.G. Wolfe

In most of the U.S., if you ask for a “Sloppy Joe” you’ll get a sandwich made with sautéed ground beef and onions, with a sweetened tomato sauce, served on a hamburger roll. Many of us recall this version of the Sloppy Joe from our elementary school cafeteria “hot” lunch days. But ask for a Sloppy Joe Sandwich in Northern or North Central New Jersey and you’ll get something completely different than what the lunch lady served up.

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Legend has it that the New Jersey Sloppy Joe was invented in the 1930’s at the Town Hall Deli in South Orange, a family-owned delicatessen that has been around since 1927. In the 1930s, a politician from Maplewood named Mike Sweeney asked proprietors Fred Joost and Heinz Berdorf to prepare a sandwich he had been enjoying while on vacation in Havana, Cuba, at a bar called Sloppy Joe’s, supposedly a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway known for it’s disheveled reputation.

While you’ll find variations at different delis, the traditional Sloppy Joe is served on rye bread and is typically made with two types of deli meat. The original Town Hall sandwich used cow tongue and ham, but the most popular combination today is roast beef and turkey. Add some Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing and you’ve got a Jersey-style Sloppy Joe. The Sloppy Joe at the Town Hall Deli is famous for its homemade Russian dressing (the recipe is a closely guarded family secret) and the specially baked light Pullman rye that the sandwich is served on. The loaf of bread is sliced the long way, creating a rectangular sandwich big enough for two-three people. 

While most local delis and general stores can serve up a respectable Sloppy Joe, experiencing the original at the Town Hall Deli is worth the trip. They’re located at 74 First Street in South Orange, NJ  07079. Visit townhalldeli@gmail.com, for more information.