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Culinary Curiosities: The Origin of the Sandwich



Sandwiches are a staple of modern American life. Whether it’s an egg McMuffin for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch or a hot French Dip for dinner, most of us will eat at least one (or maybe more) a day. Often eaten daily, occasionally sublime, the humble sandwich is hard to beat for a quick and eminently portable meal. Today they exist in a multitude of forms: double deckers, open-faced, toasted, stuffed, rolled, wrapped, breadless, meatless and, well, you get the picture. Who came up with the first sandwich and how did they become such an indispensable part of our diet?

You may have heard of John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who, in 1762, unwilling to stop gambling for supper, requested something he could eat at the table. He was brought a piece of salted beef between two slices of toasted bread, allowing him to eat tidily with one hand and still hold his cards in the other. It’s no wonder that other gentlemen asked for the bread-and-meat combination that became known as a “sandwich.” Soon they were a popular option for late-night refreshment at men’s social clubs, and then at balls and dances. They started appearing at ladies’ luncheons and at the tea table. As time went on, sandwiches moved from upper-class homes to restaurants, taverns, pubs, street vendors and average middle-class families. With the advent of sliced bread in the 1920s, everyone, even a child, could make his or her own sandwich.

But John Montagu didn’t really invent the bread-and-meat assemblage, of course. Ancient cultures have always used bread as a wrap or utensil for eating meats, stews, dips and other foods. For ages Greeks and Turks have stuffed pitas and other flatbreads with a variety of meats and vegetables—something the Earl of Sandwich might have seen during his travels in the Mediterranean. For centuries in Northern Europe, Scandinavian cultures have enjoyed a type of open-faced sandwich—smorrebrod for the Danes, smorgas or macka for the Swedes—often with buttered dark rye bread for a base, neatly topped with meat, cheese and fish. But one of the oldest and possibly the very first sandwich may have been invented by the rabbi Hillel the Elder back in the 1st century B.C., who put nuts, bitter herbs and wine (and lamb in some accounts) between two pieces of unleavened bread, creating a vital piece of the Passover seder meal. 

Sandwiches have hundreds of variations, but even the simplest can have an interesting back story. Did you know that once upon a time, the ordinary peanut butter and jelly sandwich was anything but? In the late 19th century peanut butter was served in spas and sanitariums as a kind of health food.  Well-to-do diners enjoyed nut butter as a delicacy proudly served in fancy restaurants and paired with unusual ingredients such as ham, pimento, prunes, cabbage and even chili between the slices of bread. It wasn’t until peanut processing improved and sugar was added that peanut butter became a cheap, appealing sandwich filling for kids.

Sometimes sandwiches can be political. The famous New Orleans po' boy evolved during a streetcar operators strike in 1929. Clovis and Bennie Martin owned a coffee stand but had worked as streetcar conductors themselves. They offered to feed any of the strikers free of charge, calling out, “here comes another poor boy!” when one of the streetcar operators approached for a meal. The long loaves of bread were filled with whatever was available, from leftover roast beef and gravy to fried seafood, and then “dressed” with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.

What of the nearly 300 million sandwiches that are made every day, many them in a rush?  I feel the same as Mrs. Lee, a Boston housekeeper writing in 1832, who tutted that sandwiches have “got out of fashion, from the bad manner in which they are commonly made.”  Let’s slow down, enjoy assembling something delicious, and give the hard-working sandwich its due. 

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