Joe and the cucumber sandwiches

Today’s Rhymes With Orange cartoon, “Tea Time”:


You are expected to recognize, from the title and from the drawing (showing a teapot, teacups, sugar bowl, and 3-tiered tray of fingerfood) that this depicts an afternoon tea — not tea plants in the afternoon, or merely the beverage tea taken in the afternoon, but (from NOAD):

noun tea: … 3 chiefly British a light afternoon meal consisting typically of tea to drink, sandwiches, and cakes.

But that won’t help you with the text, in which one tea sandwich asks of another (identified as female) why the latter brought Joe — Joe clearly referring to the one discordant element in the drawing, who appears to be a hamburger bun overstuffed with a meat filling, some of which has spilled out onto the table. Messy, messy Joe, who “just can’t pull himself together”.

Clearly, that one line, in conjunction with Joe’s appearance, is somehow the crux of the joke. But how?

For this, you have to know a bit about vernacular American foodstuffs, in particular the sandwich known as a sloppy joe. So it’s a pun on the name — and also, it turns out, a gender joke.

On the sloppy Joe, from my 5/16/13 posting “Manwich and Beefaroni as portmanteaus”, including discussion of the opposition between the high-macho sloppy joe and the feminine or effete tea sandwich:

Manwich: “a canned sloppy joe sauce … The can contains seasoned tomato sauce that is added to cooked ground beef in a skillet” to yield a filling for hamburger buns.

… On the sloppy joe:

(#2) From the Food Network site, with a sloppy joe recipe by Ree Drummond

A sloppy joe is a sandwich originating in the United States of ground beef, onions, tomato sauce or ketchup and other seasonings, served on a hamburger bun. (link)

The sloppy joe is at one end of the masculinity / manliness scale of food (in the sandwich world, it shares that end of the scale with the Dagwood sandwich): it’s meat, it’s messy, and you hold it in your hand to eat it, no utensils needed — man’s food.

Digression on the other end of the  scale: the cucumber sandwich [the quintessential tea sandwich]:

The traditional cucumber sandwich is composed of paper-thin slices of cucumber placed between two thin slices of crustless, lightly buttered white (or wheat in some cases) bread. (link)

This is a sandwich for ladies’ teas or for effete men. And it figures in one of the great works of English literature, Oscar Wilde’s comic play The Importance of Being Earnest.

On tea sandwiches more generally, from Wikipedia:

A tea sandwich (also referred to as finger sandwich) is a small prepared sandwich meant to be eaten at afternoon teatime to stave off hunger until the main meal.

The tea sandwich may take a number of different forms, but should be easy to handle, and should be capable of being eaten in two or three bites. It may be a long, narrow sandwich, a triangular half-sandwich, or a small biscuit. It may also be cut into other decorative shapes with a cookie cutter.

The bread is traditionally white, thinly sliced, and buttered. The bread crust is cut away cleanly from the sandwich after the sandwich has been prepared but before serving.

… Fillings are light, and are “dainty” or “delicate” in proportion to the amount of bread. Spreads might include butter, cream cheese or mayonnaise mixtures, and the sandwiches often feature fresh vegetables such as radishes, olives, cucumber, asparagus, or watercress. The cucumber tea sandwich in particular is considered the quintessential tea sandwich.

Nearly minimal classic cucumber tea sandwiches (amended only by the addition of some watercress (of which I am inordinately fond):

(#3) From the Williams Sonoma website, cucumber-watercress tea sandwiches: thin slices of white sandwich bread, unsalted butter, thin slices of peeled cucumbers, watercress leaves, salt

Now, on that 3-tiered tray in #1. Afternoon tea is not a matter of browsing on lots of finger food (as you might with, say, tapas), but is highly ritualized, including a division into courses, represented by the three tiers of the traditional tray. From the “oh, how CIVILIZED” website on “Afternoon Tea Course Order”

Traditional afternoon tea is served in three courses and usually on a three-tiered tray alongside a pot of tea. This illustrated guide shows what order afternoon tea should be eaten.


Finally, then, the (female) tea sandwich’s comment in #1 about the sloppy joe represents a woman’s annoyance at the intrusion of a big messy guy into the ordered, genteel, elegant, and restrained world of the tea tray. How like a man, rudely taking up a whole lot of space and negligently dropping his stuff all over the place!

2 Responses to “Joe and the cucumber sandwiches”

  1. Larry Davidson Says:

    Where I was growing up (in New Jersey) that was not what a sloppy joe was. After six decades I don’t remember the details, but it was some kind of combination of cold cuts, cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing, I believe.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      From Wikipedia:

      In some stores in northern New Jersey, an unrelated sandwich made with a combination of deli meat, such as turkey, roast beef or especially ham, with coleslaw, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese on three slices of rye bread is also known as a sloppy joe.

      From the Washington Post on 12/24//14:

      In certain parts of the Garden State, the term “sloppy Joe” refers not to the ground-beef-and-tomato-sauce sandwich but to a no-cook deli classic. The double-decker sandwich combines two meats, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing on rye bread.
      This recipe pays homage to the Town Hall Delicatessen in South Orange, N.J., which claims to be the originator of the sandwich in this form.

      Wikipedia and Google are your friends: you should use them.

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