Just the Other Day: The Diablo Sandwich

I’m not one to watch a lot of television but when I do get into a show, I really get into it. Maybe I avoid watching because I become addicted, or I am too easily influenced by the shows.


For example, I never watched a single episode of the TV show, M*A*S*H when it originally aired for eleven years. I didn’t start watching until it became a syndicated series of reruns in the mid 80’s and I became hooked on the show. I would rush home to watch it at 5:30 on WOI-TV, channel 5. If I still had work to do at the office, I would go back. They ran two more episodes back-to-back at 10:30, after the news and I seldom missed those.


My kids swear they grew up falling asleep to the sound of an incoming helicopter and the theme song for M*A*S*H. When the TV station changed their programming and stopped airing the show, I bought the VHS tapes, then the box set of all the episodes when it became available on DVD. Yes, I was and still am hooked on the show. There’s no doubt I am influenced by what I see on the screen.


Just the other day, I watched the episode where the 4077th gets a can of tomato juice by mistake. When Colonel Potter sees Radar with a glass of the deep red juice, he reminisces; saying he hadn’t had tomato juice for years. Radar gave him the juice. The colonel drinks it and smiles, “Delisch. That really hit the spot, Radar.”


Wanting to please his commander, Radar started weaving a web of deals to assure the colonel would get tomato juice every morning. When Radar presented the tomato juice to the colonel, Potter pushed it aside, “No thanks Radar. I like it, but it doesn’t like me.” The juice gave him a rash.


After watching that episode, I went to the store and bought a big can of tomato juice as I hadn’t had it for years. The first glass was mighty tasty, but now I have bunch left in the refrigerator.


TV shows aren’t the only form of entertainment that can have an influence on me.


I was teenager on my motorcycle, racing down the alley alongside the Green Street parking lot, behind the movie theaters in downtown Ottumwa. I was speeding – going way to fast. A cop on second street saw me, turned on his lights and came after me in his Dodge Diplomat police car. I was going to take off to ditch him, but then thought it would be better if I stopped.


Ron Tolle, an Ottumwa police sergeant, stood next to me, sitting on my bike. The badge pinned to the front of his dark blue hat with the rigid, shiny plastic bill reflected the street light. He looked ten feet tall. “What’s your hurry, Mr. Palen?” How did he know my name?


I was scared to death. It was the first time I’d been pulled over by a cop – well, since getting my driver’s license; there was that one time on a bicycle but that’s a different story.  I explained, “I’m not in a hurry. I just watched that new movie at the theater, Smokey and the Bandit. I guess I’m a little pumped up.” He let me go with a verbal warning; telling me to slow down. I love that movie!


A few years later I was watching Smokey and the Bandit, edited for TV. It sounded goofy when Sheriff Justice would curse, “You scum bum!” Certain words just couldn’t be said on television.  The Bandit had just stopped to get a couple of cheeseburgers, when Sheriff Justice rushed into the same restaurant and ordered a Diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper. He wanted it fast as he was in a hurry. Despite seeing the movie over and over, that was the first time I ever wondered what a Diablo sandwich was. I wanted to try one.


Betty had a recipe for everything. I looked in my Betty Crocker cookbook but there was no such sandwich. I went to the public library to check Better Homes and Gardens and several other cookbooks. Still no success. I spent what seemed like hours, thumbing through pages in the aisle at Newsland, but not a single cookbook had the recipe. I asked friends and people I knew were good cooks; nobody seemed to know. People who had heard of the sandwich, only knew about it from the movie.


Over the next few decades, I watched that movie many times, but I eventually gave up on the Diablo sandwich.


A few weeks ago, Melissa and I sat down for a movie night. We watched a classic – Smokey and the Bandit. All my desires to try that elusive sandwich were rekindled. The internet is a much better source for researching such things since the last time I had looked – which should’ve made it easy to find the recipe, right? Wrong.


I typed “Diablo Sandwich” into the search bar, hit enter and sat back to review the results.  “Come on. Are you kidding me?” In this age of technology and information, the best online recipe pages have to offer is a taco burger with corn and cheese. “Clearly, that was not the sandwich in the movie.”


I posted my dilemma on Facebook where friends responded with a variety of links to recipes. The people posting recipes claimed they were “real,” “actual” and “authentic from the movie.” One recipe claimed the Diablo sandwich was a glorified sloppy joe with corn and lettuce – but their photo had coleslaw with purple cabbage on the meat. Ick. There were no vegetables on the Diablo sandwich featured in the movie.


A couple other articles said the Diablo was a fictitious sandwich made up for the movie and didn’t really exist. Unwilling to accept that, I wasn’t going to give up. Later that night, after spending a few more hours searching the web for the recipe, Melissa said, “You’ve invested a lot of time in this Diablo Sandwich. It was a movie – it doesn’t really exist.” I couldn’t believe those words came forth from my own wife.


I felt abandoned – like Linus Van Pelt, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear in the pumpkin patch, when Sally Brown gave up, leaving him there alone. I wasn’t going to give up. Not when I knew in my heart the Diablo sandwich was real.


The next day, a friend sent me a link to an article where someone took the time to investigate the Diablo sandwich mystery in a near forensic manner. They found the restaurant location where the movie scene was filmed; The Old Hickory House restaurant in Forest Park, Georgia. They researched the menus from the seventies and concluded no such sandwich existed. However, they were able to demonstrate the meat in the sandwich Sheriff Justice ate was shredded, not ground beef like you would find in a taco burger or sloppy joe.


Because of the name Diablo, which is Spanish for Devil, they reasoned the sandwich was probably served with a hot or spicy sauce. Their article produced an old family recipe, handed down for generations by the actual restaurant owners, for a spicy BBQ sauce that would have been served over pulled pork or shredded beef. Then they determined the meat in the sandwich must have been pork based on its color.


The author of the article, concluded the Diablo Sandwich was what most Americans would call a pulled pork sandwich with BBQ sauce. They suggested the name of the sandwich may have been ad-libbed into the movie by Jackie Gleason, who played Sheriff Buford T. Justice.


The authors research was thorough. The article was very convincing, backed up with logical information and facts that included the recipe for the sauce. I was now on a mission to recreate the sandwich.


I planned ahead, picked out the perfect pork roast and made sure I had all the ingredients needed. I made the sauce a couple of days ahead so the spices would have time to blend well. Friday morning, I began slow cooking the meat. The moment was finally at hand.


Friday night I warmed the BBQ sauce and assembled the sandwiches. They were beautiful and looked exactly like the sandwich presented to Sheriff Justice at the counter in the movie.


We garnished the plates with kettle chips and a pickle spear and, of course, included ice cold glasses of Dr Pepper.  When I took the first couple bites, I knew I had finally found it – the elusive Diablo Sandwich was mine at last; ‘twas a dream come true. By the third bite, a tear welled up in my eye. (My wife was laughing at this point.) Yes, I was pretty emotional, but the tear was most likely from the BBQ sauce – it had a real good kick to it. Wow!


For years, people have told me, “There is no Diablo Sandwich – it’s just pulled pork on a bun.” But I knew better! The Diablo Sandwich is just as real as the Great Pumpkin, the Great Oz, the Tooth Fairy and a few others I know of. But in order for any of these to exist, one must believe. I believe.



If anyone wants to stop by, I’ll let you try a Diablo Sandwich – I made plenty of extra. While you’re here, you can have a glass of tomato juice – I have plenty of that too. I’ve got to stop staying up late, watching old TV shows and movies. I’m too easily influenced…