Officially defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “two pieces of bread with a filling between them, eaten as a light meal,” the invention of the sandwich has always been credited to John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. But does the sandwich date back even further than that? Read on for more on this most popular snack that everyone in the world enjoys today.
As the story goes, the Earl was quite a gambler, and this royal minister of state became so absorbed in public gaming he was known to spend 24 hours non-stop at the tables. He would get hungry but never leave the table for fear of missing a winner, he would slap together two slices of bread with a slice of beef in between and wolf it down so he could remain in the game.
A Tour to London, a book written by Pierre-Jean Grosley in the late 1700s, contained the following account that forever connected this culinary invention to the Earl of Sandwich, “A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorbed in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he ate without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London; it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”
Food historians agree the earliest recorded reference to the word was made by Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He is credited with being the first person to write the word “sandwich” in an entry in his journal that was dated November 24, 1762. He wrote, “Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”
Gibbon and Montagu were contemporaries and traveled in the same circles. At the time of his writing the above, Gibbon was First Lord of the Admiralty. It is possible both men helped to elevate the sandwich to a state of notoriety, but John Montagu’s exploits were much more colorful and visible.
Ancient cultures knew variations of the sandwich although it didn’t have a proper name. The earliest form of a sandwich may be the Korech or “Hillel sandwich” was eaten during Jewish Passover. It consisted of bitter herbs inside unleavened matzoh bread. It is likely this way of serving food was already entrenched in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. For centuries in rural France, farm laborers ate meat between sliced bread long before anyone knew what to call it.
The first time sandwiches appeared in American cookbooks was in 1816. By that time, fillings were diverse and much more elaborate than plain old beef. They included cheese, fruit, shellfish, nuts, and mushrooms. After the Civil war, sandwiches became ubiquitous among all classes of people and all types of eating and drinking establishments. They became so popular, by the dawn of the twentieth century, they were given names for their many different forms. Two prime examples were the “triple-layered club sandwich” and the “corned beef Reuben.”
As appealing as they were, after Gustav Papendick’s invention of sliced and packaged bread in the late 1920s, mothers of school children rediscovered sandwiches and now their children could make their own lunches without the use of a knife. The portability of the sandwich made it the ideal luncheon choice for workers and students of all ages.
Orlando Montagu, John’s great-great-great-great-great grandson, has founded a chain of restaurants surprisingly named Earl of Sandwich. The menu is versatile but the sandwich of the day is always the same. It is The Original 1762, which includes: roast beef, sharp cheddar, and creamy horseradish sauce served on warm bread.
Every region has its own variation of the sandwich. In Cuba, restaurants serve ham and cheese on Cuban bread; in the Middle East, falafel or shawarma in a pita pocket is most popular; the French boast a Croque Monsieur or Croque Madame as conventional café fare; Italians adore their paninos; New Yorkers their pastrami on rye and the Reuben; Philadelphia is all about the cheese-steak.
Sandwiches are creative, ubiquitous and are here to stay.