Loose Meat: The Maid Rites of Iowa

John Garland / Heavy Table

John Garland / Heavy Table

A young man is sitting on my right, at one end of the horseshoe-shaped counter of Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, Iowa. He’s ordered two original maid rites and a chocolate malt. He’s also asked the cashier to hold off on making the second sandwich until he’s done eating the first.

“I’ve been eating at Taylor’s my whole life,” he tells me. “They’re better than any other maid rites I’ve ever had.”

“How are they different?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he responds after a short pause. “They just taste better.”

“But what’s better about them?” I persist. “How do they taste differently from any other maid rite?”

He shrugs his shoulders as if he’s already answered my question. “They’re just better.”

At Taylor’s, I eat my very first maid rite (above, right). It’s made seven feet from my nose in less than 20 seconds. A spoon is set down in front of me; I think it’s for my malt. The sandwich arrives and I unravel the grease-spotted wax paper. Crumbles of ground beef spill into my lap. I glare at the spoon, realizing it’s not for my malt.

The sandwich is soft; a bite yields no resistance. It tastes like a burger, but not exactly. It tastes great; I want another. I spoon up the remnants of my first sandwich to find the crumbles have already turned cold. On my right, the man’s second maid rite arrives steaming hot. He’s ordered with a veteran’s wisdom.

John Garland / Heavy Table

John Garland / Heavy Table

Part I

A maid rite is a hamburger, more or less. It represents to Iowa what the jucy lucy does to South Minneapolis, right down to its intentionally misspelled name. Though unlike lucys, maid rites are more uniform from place to place. It’s a simpler sandwich that allows only for minute variations.

You’ll often hear a maid rite described as a sloppy Joe without the slop — a regular Joe, as it were. It’s also referred to as a “tavern sandwich,” a “beef burger,” or, least appetizingly of all, a “loose meat sandwich.” Though I’ve never heard an Iowan in conversation refer to the sandwich as anything other than a “maid rite.” Wherever you find them, they’ll run around $3.

To make the sandwich, ground beef is finely crumbled and cooked, sometimes by steaming in a trough-like contraption. Onions might be added (cooked briefly, if at all) before the mixture is spooned into a hamburger bun. You may, and really should, request pickles and mustard. No shop will add ketchup for you — it’s an odd source of contention.

Iowans tell me that Taylor’s makes superior sandwiches thanks to being somewhat estranged from the corporate Maid-Rite chain. Their independence once resulted in a scuffle with corporate headquarters (and food safety regulations) over their traditional meat-steaming vessel. The possibility of Taylor’s having to change their cooking process was met with dramatic resistance.

I ask an old woman sitting on my left at Taylor’s about whether she adds ketchup to her maid rites. She says nothing, unleashing a brow so furrowed and nose so wrinkled, you’d think I was wiping the grease from my fingers with pages from the New Testament. Ketchup bottles were kept off the counter at Taylor’s until a few years ago. Now, some old-timers even ask workers to remove the bottles from their vicinity before they begin eating.

John Garland / Heavy Table

John Garland / Heavy Table

Part II

My experience at Taylor’s has me wondering about the various degrees that a maid rite can be a Maid-Rite®. The sandwich was popularized in 1926 in Muscatine, Iowa, by a man named Fred Angell, who immediately began franchising the idea. Cliff Taylor purchased the Marshalltown location that would become his namesake in 1928. Beforehand, he worked at a shop in Newton that opened in 1927.

There still exist some locations that were grandfathered in, and still use the Maid-Rite name without affiliation to the chain. So I head to Newton, 40 minutes south of Marshalltown, to taste a fully independent maid rite.

The shop in Newton (above) looks much like Taylor’s, lovingly worn-in throughout the years, with a three-sided counter and a sandwich assembly station in the middle. Pictures on the wall show candidate Obama in 2008, hoisting a maid rite and posing with the owners. The shop also has a drive-thru window, which is ridiculous. You can get a maid rite so quickly, you wouldn’t save much time by staying in the car. Moreover, I can’t imagine a less ideal sandwich to eat on the road. Half of the beef would tumble into the crevasse between your seat and center console in a matter of seconds.

John Garland / Heavy Table

John Garland / Heavy Table

I sit down and demolish two maid rites in an embarrassingly short amount of time. The ground beef in Newton’s maid rite (above) is completely unseasoned, whereas the corporate chain adds a secret spice mix. The success of this sandwich is improbable — how on earth is unseasoned beef on a white grocery store hamburger bun this damn good?

In Newton, I learn that pickles absolutely make the sandwich. Maid rites need some acidity and textural contrast. Pickles do both; mustard adds a nice counterpunch as well. For now, I refuse to add ketchup, deferring to the traditional makeup. The owner claims that there have been ketchup bottles on the counters in Newton since at least the ’70s and that about 40 percent of her customers use it.

John Garland / Heavy Table

John Garland / Heavy Table

Part III

Now I need to know what a “corporate” Maid-Rite tastes like. I want to taste what some tell me is soul-sucking infidelity and calloused disregard for Iowan tradition. Instead, I taste a sandwich that’s simply more composed, for better and worse.

I come across Chuck and Edna’s Maid-Rite (above) on the other side of the state in Cascade. It’s clean as a hospital and just a few years old. The corporate Maid-Rite menu is expansive, including hot dogs, salads, pulled pork, chicken, and fish sandwiches. Their buns are larger and denser, with a choice of white or wheat. The sandwiches (below) come on plates, not tucked into wrappers. The beef is neatly piled in the middle of the bun.

The beef is more crumbly than at the other two shops with a different kind of moisture to it. I don’t know how the meat is cooked, since it’s made in a closed-off kitchen rather than in the middle of the shop. I’ve heard some say that corporate Maid-Rites start with frozen beef, perhaps even pre-cooked, frozen and thawed in a microwave. I can’t substantiate any of these claims. The spice mix on the beef doesn’t add as much as you’d think to the overall effect.

John Garland / Heavy Table

John Garland / Heavy Table

So their beef lags behind the other shops, but the pickles are larger and snappier and the buns do a better job of corralling the meat. In Cascade, I finally break tradition and add ketchup. It’s a terrible choice. Ketchup makes the sandwich too sweet and destroys the texture, making it more like a sloppy Joe with even less nuance. I also learn that I’m anti Cheese-Rite (above, right): American cheese actually dampens the overall flavor. Also, the texture of the loose meat in gooey cheese isn’t ideal. Nonetheless, these aren’t bad sandwiches by any stretch.

It’s also in Cascade that I learn that even pickles were not always accepted on the maid rite, and that the original sandwich was griddled with the addition of Coca-Cola. So there’s something to be said for breaking with maid rite tradition where it makes sense.

Conclusion

Maybe it’s not that maid rites are something Iowans can’t explain — rather, it’s something they don’t need to explain. They’re on school lunch menus; there’s a shop on the corner in their hometown. It’s a sandwich so straightforward, it speaks for itself. An Iowan friend of mine grew up thinking maid rites were a part of every American’s daily life. I came back from my trip believing that, when made right, they should be.

Plenty of bars and lunch counters in Iowa serve these sandwiches. A place called Canteen Lunch In The Alley in Ottumwa, Iowa, might be the sandwich’s current spiritual home (it even inspired the title character’s loose meat sandwich shop on the TV series Roseanne). But before venturing out to those under-the-radar spots, I wanted my introduction to the sandwich to be the maid rite spectrum — from indie to affiliated to corporate. As for my favorite, I have to give the nod to Newton. Maybe it was the earnest, small-town ambience, maybe it was the friendly owner. Like most of the Iowans I spoke with, I don’t know exactly why.

John Garland / Heavy Table

John Garland / Heavy Table

Taylor’s Maid-Rite
106 S 3rd Ave
Marshalltown, IA 50158
641.753.9684

Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop
215 1st Ave W
Newton, IA 50208
641.792.4166

Chuck and Edna’s Maid-Rite
325 1st Ave W
Cascade, IA 52033
563.852.7483

If you want to taste a Maid-Rite without driving to Iowa, there are five locations in Minnesota — the closest to the Twin Cities are in St. Cloud and Owatonna.

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About the Author

John Garland

John Garland is a freelance writer living in the East Isles neighborhood of Minneapolis. His area of expertise is wine - thanks to schooling from the International Sommelier Guild and more than a few winery visits during his time at the American University of Rome. He also contributes to Beer Dabbler's Growler Magazine and is always available for writing opportunities and happy hours.

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13 Comments

  1. Sarah 09/25/2013

    What? No mention of Ross’?

  2. J Wynia 09/25/2013

    There are places in the Twin Cities to get a Maid-Rite. I get mine at Tasty Pizza in Fridley. Nothing on the signs indicates it’s associated with any central branding, but the sandwich is on the menu.

  3. Josh Page 09/25/2013

    Wonderful essay, John. Having never spent time in Iowa, I’ve never tried a maid rite. I’m pleasantly surprised that folks don’t drowned the sandwich in ketchup. Pickles and mustard sound just right. Thanks.

  4. John garland 09/25/2013

    J wynia-

    I figured there has to be a place or two around here that serves them. Props to Tasty, is theirs like the maid rites I’ve described above or are there other additions? I know some bars in Iowa add just a touch a chili to make it a little more like a sloppy joe.

    Josh-

    Thanks! The more I learn about Iowans, the more they shatter the stereotypes Minnesotans lay on them. It’s the young kids that like ketchup, those old timers avoid it like the plague.

  5. J Wynia 09/26/2013

    Tasty serves a “plain” and one with cheese as well as in 2 sizes: regular and “double”. I don’t mind the cheese, personally, but usually go for mustard and pickle on a plain double myself.

  6. Stu B 10/15/2013

    Wasn’t there a Maid Rite down on the east side of Shady Oak road south of Hwy 7 and north of Hwy 62?

    • matt 03/21/2014

      There was one on Shady Oak but I think it’s gone. Hope not though.

  7. Matt Karl 11/27/2013

    I grew up in Marshalltown but did not fall under the spell of the loose meat sandwich as a youth. Now that I live in the Twin Cities and Taylor’s Maid-Rite is unavailable to me, it has become a exotic locale — a fun place to stop when visiting family. Your article is well done, John, but you neglected to mention one key aspect of Taylor’s Maid-Rite sandwiches: you can order them “wet” or “dry.” When I asked the waitress what that meant, she said that dry ones come with much of the grease squeezed out. (Needless to say, wet ones are tastier.)

  8. carole 03/11/2014

    Could I have the original recipe for maid rite, please! Thank you.

  9. Author
    John Garland 03/11/2014

    Carole –

    I’m not sure that an “original” recipe even exists. There seems to be a ton of variation, and, as I mentioned in the article, the “original” maid-rite may have been griddled with coca-cola, so, I think there’s something to be said for variation.

    Since the beef in a maid-rite is more steamed than griddled (in that strange well contraption you can kind of see in the last photo) I would imagine that a slow-cooker would be a good way to cook the crumbled ground beef. Add in some moisture so it doesn’t brown too quickly (maybe beef stock or something), and then add in some chopped onion at the very end.

    Though certainly not traditional, this variation looks pretty decent: http://iowagirleats.com/2010/11/01/you-know-youre-from-the-midwest/. Plus, the author is from Iowa, so she probably knows her stuff.

    John Garland

  10. The original Maid-Rite was in Muscatine, Iowa. There are photos in the new location of the original place in Muscatine. They still have a wooden keg for root beer also. In Muscatine, the present Maid-Rite is located on Hwy. 61.

  11. penny snider 07/31/2015

    Loved I always love a ride down memory lane hope taylors lives on forever I ll remember that wet or dry sandwich (which ever way you order) with mustard onion pickle em em!!