Loose Meat: The Maid Rites of Iowa
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
106 S 3rd Ave
Marshalltown, IA 50158
Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop
215 1st Ave W
Newton, IA 50208
Chuck and Edna’s Maid-Rite
325 1st Ave W
Cascade, IA 52033
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.