What's in a name?

Steamer, sloppy joe or mexican sandwich -- are they the same?

Steamer, sloppy joe or mexican sandwich -- are they the same?


When I was a teen working at a Clear Spring deli, a man walked up to my counter and ordered a meat grinder.

I looked back at the meat slicer behind me and told him that I couldn't sell it to him. He'd have to talk to my boss.

That summer I found out (after an eye roll and a few choice words) that grinders are what New Englanders call subs. They're also called submarines, hoagies, heroes and Po'Boys, depending on where you grew up.

A Western Maryland favorite, the steamer, also has its own identity crisis. Is "steamer" just another term for a sloppy joe?


I say no. They're similar, that's for sure, but not exactly the same sandwich. To me, a steamer is a loose, ground-beef sandwich with a mild-chili-flavored tomato-based sauce and traditionally served, for purists, on a potato roll. A sloppy joe is also made with ground beef, but its tomato sauce is tangier and has onion, green pepper and ketchup, and it's served on a hamburger bun. Think Manwich, which has more of a tangy taste.

The same or different?

Walter Wolfe of Williamsport spent 53 years serving up steamers at Sam's Busy Corner in Williamsport. He says "there's lots of differences" between a sloppy joe and a steamer. But he won't elaborate. Wolfe is so protective of his steamer recipe, not only will he not share it, but he won't even give hints. It's like asking Col. Harland Sanders for the list of 11 herbs and spices for his Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"I just don't like to give it out," Wolfe says.

Donna Jackman of Smithsburg has lived in the area since 1979. As secretary and treasurer for the West Hagerstown Lion's Club, she's made her share of steamers.

"For 15 years, I used to make steamers at the food concession stand for the Smithsburg Leopards," she says. "We would go through as much as 80 to 85 pounds of ground meat."

Most notably, she and the rest of the Lions Club members gather to make steamers for various Washington County events including Railroad Heritage Days in June and the Alsatia Mummer's Day parade in the fall.

To Jackman, a steamer is all in a name. She says she's lived all over the United States and found that, wherever you are, you're bound to find a local version of a steamer.

"There's basically no difference," she says. "It just depends on what part of the country you're in."

She says in Pennsylvania and Minnesota the sandwiches are called sloppy joes. In Louisiana, they're called Mexican Po'Boys.

Jackman's recipe for a steamer uses the basics of ground round steak, minced onion and ketchup.

But she adds vinegar, Heinz 57, Worcestershire sauce and garlic powder. "I like using the vinegar because it adds a snap," she says.


The recipe I grew up with didn't have all of those "extras." It was cheap and super-simple. Brown a pound and a half of hamburger, add a bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce, add a little water into the jar, swish it around and then add to mixture. Simmer until the water boils off and the sauce is nice and thick. My mom, a Williamsport native, says she got the chili-sauce secret from a lady who used to serve up steamers for years at the Fairplay Carnival.

One thing both Jackman and I agree on is what a perfect steamer is served on: a potato roll. Not just any roll, but the Pennsylvania Dutch-style Martin's Potato Rolls. (It's not made by Martin's Food Market, but by Martin's Famous Pastry Shoppe Inc. Chambersburg, Pa).

Wolfe, on the other hand, says he served his steamers on hamburger rolls. Jackman says for big events that's what she does, too. It's cheaper.

Steamer meat is also versatile. It can be spooned over a hot dog in a hot dog bun and served as a chili dog. Yes, in some parts of the country a chili dog actually has chili on it.

Mexican sandwiches

Now, residents in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle call a sandwich with loose ground beef in a tomato-based sauce neither a steamer nor a sloppy joe. To them, especially in the Martinsburg, W.Va., area, it's a mexican sandwich. It's similar, that's for sure, but the texture is different.

Bob Widmeyer has owned Bob's Carry-Out in Martinsburg, W.Va., for 44 years. For the last 15 to 20 years, he says he's served mexican sandwiches.

Sloppy joes, he says, are spicier than mexicans, and the meat is looser.

"Sloppy joes are just like their name, a whole lot messier," he says.

Widmeyer says he took the name from the Palace Pool Room, which was in downtown Martinsburg. He says he doesn't know why the sandwich is called a mexican, but believes it's because of the spices.

And what are those spices? Forget it. Widmeyer's not sharing. He only says he uses ground beef and some special spices.

"I know a lot of older people who would love me to give them the recipe," he says.

A mexican, Widmeyer says, is served traditionally on a hot dog bun. With or without a hot dog, it's still a mexican. Purists add ketchup, mustard and onion to the hot dog before pouring on the ground beef mixture.

Widmeyer says it's a popular sandwich with his customers.

"Oh, I make a batch of up about once a week," he says. "I was just making a batch right now."

Donna Jackman's steamer recipe

1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1/4 cup parsley, dry
1 cup ketchup
1/4 to 1/2 cup hot water
1/4 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons Heinz 57 sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoon brown sugar

In a skillet, brown meat with onion, until onions turn clear. Stir in remaining ingredients. Let simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce has thickened. Serve on potato rolls or hamburger buns.

-- Courtesy of Donna Jackman

Super-simple steamers

1 1/2 pounds ground beef

12-ounce bottle of Heinz chili sauce

2 tablespoons of water

1 medium onion, chopped fine (optional)

In a skillet, brown beef, add onion if desired. Stir in bottle of chili sauce. Add about 2 tablespoons of water to the bottle, swish around and add into meat. Stir. Simmer until water boils off and sauce is nice and thick. Serve over potato rolls.

-- Schelle family recipe

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