Roseanne's favorite sandwich is a local favorite in a lotta places
Loose meat sandwiches. The name, unlike the actual sandwich, is not especially appetizing.
Unless you’re from a certain part of the country, you’ve probably only heard of loose meat sandwiches from the TV show Roseanne. The Conner family operated The Lanford Lunchbox starting in the show’s fifth season, and the Lunchbox specialized in loose meat sandwiches.
If you are from the loose meat part of the country—Iowa and Western Illinois—you probably don’t call them loose meat sandwiches. You call them Maid-Rites, after the ubiquitous Maid-Rite chain of restaurants that claims to have invented them. You might call them tavern sandwiches. Or just plain old loose meats.
And just what are loose meats/Maid-Rites/taverns? Imagine a sloppy joe without sauce, or a burger that fell apart during cooking, or not-spicy ground beef taco filling. A loose meat sandwich is cooked, seasoned ground beef on a steamed bun, typically with diced pickles and onions. (Here’s a recipe from The Sioux City Journal by Marcia Poole.) Sometimes you can get loose meats with cheese on top. Maid-Rite calls this a “Cheese-Rite,” obviously. You may also add ketchup or mustard, should you choose to do so, although some think ketchup is sacrilege.
Legend has it (and by legend I mean Maid-Rite’s corporate history website) butcher Fred Angell of Muscatine, Iowa invented the loose meat sandwich in 1926 because he was bored. The name comes from a delivery man who tried Angell’s creation and declared it was “made right.” “Fred was quite a sandwich maker,” says Maid-Rite, “but not much of a speller.”
But according to Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood Sandwiches, loose meats were actually invented two years earlier in 1924. According to the Sterns, David Heglin of Ye Olde Tavern in Sioux City, Iowa invented the loose meat sandwich. That’s why you will often see them called “tavern sandwiches” or “tavern burgers” or just “taverns” on menus, particularly at more mom-n-pop type establishments.
Iowa isn’t the only place you can find loose meat sandwiches. The NuWay chain based in Wichita, Kansas serves what they call “Crumbly Burgers,” including one variation topped with Kansas City-style barbecue sauce that creeps treacherously close to being a sloppy joe.
But the Lanford Lunchbox of Roseanne fame is allegedly inspired by an Iowa restaurant. The Canteen Lunch in the Alley, a cafe in Roseanne Barr’s then-husband Tom Arnold’s hometown of Ottumwa, has been open since 1927 and in its current location since 1936. They are famous for their pies and—you guessed it—their loose meat sandwiches. What do they call them? Canteens, of course.