This entry was significantly expanded in December 2023.
Although accounts differ, most people credit Joseph Schweska with creating the horseshoe sandwich, the locally famous open-faced combination of toast, meat and French fries covered in cheese sauce.
As the story goes, Schweska, who was the chef at the Leland Hotel, Sixth Street and Capitol Avenue, in the late 1920s, needed a new item for his lunch menu. His wife, Elizabeth, suggested a sandwich featuring a Welsh rarebit sauce.
According to family accounts, Schweska’s first horseshoe sandwich got its name because the meat was ham cut off the bone in a horseshoe shape. It was served with potato wedges instead of fries. The cheese sauce was Schweska’s own recipe.
The horseshoe later was popularized by Steve Tomko, who had worked at the Leland with Schweska and went on to cook at Norb Andy’s Tabarin and Wayne’s Red Coach Inn, both of which offered well-regarded horseshoe variations.
Modern horseshoe recipes, usually presented on Texas toast, feature a variety of meats — most often hamburger or chicken as well as ham — and proprietary cheese sauces. (In addition to the origin of the sandwich, horseshoe aficionados in Springfield tend to argue over the best cheese sauce recipe.)
The horseshoe is regularly featured when national TV crews visit Springfield. The Wall Street Journal also reported on the horseshoe in 2010.
Update, with recipe
Illinois State Journal reporter Robert Wood presented recipes from three of Springfield’s leading hotel chefs in an article published on Christmas Day 1938. Joseph Schweska’s rarebit sauce was one of those recipes. (The others were Tomato Stuffed with Salmon and Anchovies by John Dineen, chief steward of the St. Nicholas Hotel, and Creamed Corned Beef Hash by H.G. Williams, chief chef at the Hotel Abraham Lincoln.)
Schweska, who was chief chef at the Leland Hotel, estimated he made six gallons of the sauce every day for diners there. He also told Wood the recipe, which he started making about 1932, was no secret – he had given it away to hundreds of people already.
The sauce, Schweska explains, may be used on buttered fresh shrimp, bacon and tomato sandwiches, baked ham, or deviled ham sandwiches. Here it is:
Welsh Rarebit Sauce – One-half pound butter, one-half pound flour, one quart milk, one pint of beer, one pound of old English or American cheese, a teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon cayenne pepper, one-eighth teaspoon dry mustard and a tablespoon Lea & Perrins sauce.
Cook in a double boiler.
Melt butter and add flour which until smooth. Add scalded milk and rest of dry ingredients. Add cheese, cook until smooth, and add beer just before serving.
The word “horseshoe” never appears in the 1938 article. A search of newspaper files finds the first reference to a “horseshoe” involving rarebit sauce was in an Oct. 8, 1946 ad for the Mill restaurant, where Schweska was then the chef. That primeval horseshoe had all the basics: “ham and eggs on toast with Welsh rarebit sauce and French fries,” according to the ad.
The first explicit mention of a “horseshoe sandwich” appeared in another Mill ad published on Oct. 21, 1948.
Hat tip: To Linda Cox Eddington, who first located Robert Woods’ 1938 Journal article highlighted in the update above. Eddington posted her discovery on the “Memories of Springfield … and Surrounding Areas” Facebook page in 2023.
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