Several years ago my friend and colleague Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik and I had the opportunity to do what most employees only dream of. We got to insult a corporate vice president for half an hour in the presence of even higher ranking corporate officials. The occasion was the vice president’s retirement and we got to roast him– figuratively, but from the blush on his cheeks you might have thought it was literally. It was one of the easiest from among the twenty or so roasts we’ve done because we had so much fodder with which to work. The vice president was retiring to Iowa, a move which provided a wealth of material with which we could insult him.
The roast was laced with references to farm animals, outhouses, Green Acres, American Gothic and the bridges of Madison County. We even devised an Iowa “Slim Slow” diet that featured corn flakes and corn fritters for breakfast; corned beef hash, corn on the cob, corn chips, corn muffins and corn ice cream for lunch; homemade corn whiskey for an afternoon snack; and cornmeal encrusted Cornish game hens, creamed corn and candy Korn for dinner followed by a leisurely smoke on a corn cob pipe. If you’ve ever driven through Iowa, you’ll understand; the “scenery” is comprised of miles and miles of corn.
Even though the opportunities for double-entendre would have been priceless, we didn’t include a single reference to Iowa’s famous “loose-meat” sandwiches because, frankly, we didn’t think anyone would know what they are. That is perhaps no one but fans of the situation comedy Roseanne. In the show’s later seasons, Roseanne co-owned (with a character played by real-life husband Tom Arnold) a restaurant situated in Lanford, Illinois called the Lunchbox which specialized in loose-meat sandwiches.
PBS viewers may remember that the loose-meat sandwich was also one of 22 sandwiches showcased in Sandwiches That You Will Like, a scintillating 2002 PBS documentary by the brilliant Rick Sebak of WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A companion book version written by my friend Becky Mercuri is a must-have for all sandwich aficionados. Becky, a self-admitted “inveterate student of culinary history” traces the origin of America’s most celebrated regional sandwich creations, including the aforementioned loose-meat sandwich.
Becky explains that the loose-meat sandwich came about because its nutritional and economical properties made ground beef popular in America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The evolution of both the sloppy Joe and the loose-meat sandwich was a natural. The actual origin of the loose meat sandwich is in dispute with two claimants to its first creation. The latter claimant was a Muscatine, Iowa resident named Floyd Angell who developed a special grind of meat and cooked it loosely instead of forming it into a hamburger patty. He then placed it on a roll. Voila, a loose-meat sandwich.
According to local lore, Angell handed a sandwich to a deliveryman who exclaimed that the sandwich was “made right.” That was the inspiration for Angell establishing the Maid-Rite restaurant chain in 1926. Today, Maid-Rite is a franchise boasting more than 80 outlets in Iowa and other Midwest states. As we found out, a Maid-Rite sandwich is to Iowans what the green chile cheeseburger is to New Mexicans. During our inaugural visit, we ran into and broke bread with the Schmidts, Iowa natives now residing in Roswell, New Mexico. During their two-week stay in Iowa, they planned multiple visits to Maid Rite.
We can now understand why. A Maid-Rite sandwich is surprisingly delicious, so good we drove past hundreds of boring miles of corn on our return trip from Illinois to New Mexico to have another, so good we risked filling up even though a visit to the world’s best barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s was but two hours away, so good any skepticism we may have had about ground beef sandwiches was quickly and irrevocably erased. We’re sold!
In 2009, James Beard Award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern published a terrific tome entitled 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late, a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to America. Iowa’s loose-meat sandwiches were a no-brainer inclusion. Their description: “a Siouxland sloppy Joe but without the slop, ground beef that is cooked loose — unpattied — and seasoned and drained but sauceless” is better than anything I can contrive, an apt characterization of one of America’s culinary treasures.
The menu features three sizes of Maid-Rite sandwiches–the standard-size, the mega-sized (a must have) and the junior (for smaller appetites). It also offers other sandwich options (such as a fish sandwich and a tenderloin sandwich), but they don’t spell I-O-W-A as the Maid-Rite sandwich does. Ingredient options include mustard, ketchup, onions and pickles. An inventive Maid-Rite employee even has a sandwich named for him–the Tyler Maid-Rite which includes A1 Steak Sauce and grilled onions. Other Maid-Rite options include a Cheese Rite, Chili Rite and a Bacon Rite (or you can have any combination of the three).
All ingredients–mustard, cheese, pickles and bacon, for example–are strategically positioned beneath the loose meat which somehow stays together (well, mostly) sandwiched between two soft, sweet buns. Any remnant pieces of loose meat are like a savory dessert you’ll scoop up afterwards. The meat is perfectly seasoned and amazingly greaseless yet wonderfully moist, not at all like the dust-dry ground beef you might imagine. The buns are piping hot, almost as if steamed, and as good as any hamburger bun you can imagine.
On second thought, a loose-meat sandwich wouldn’t have made good roast material. I’m not sure I could have gotten through the roast without salivating at the very thought of this delicious sandwich.
2010 West Clay Street
LATEST VISIT: 15 October 2010
1st VISIT: 7 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Mega Cheese Rite, Mega Cheese-Bacon Rite, Mega Tyler-Rite, Sweet Potato Fries