Forgotten as a Man, Remembered as a Thing:
The History of the Sandwich
EMG Sandwich Show Notes
Over 300 million sandwiches are eaten every day in the United States alone. Add that to those consumed around the rest of the world and it's hard to deny that the sandwich is THE portable snack of choice.
In this episode, our host, Simon Majumdar, will look at the origins of the sandwich, how its name was derived, and how it became so popular around the globe.
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EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
Forgotten as a Man, Remembered as a Thing: The History of the Sandwich
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi Everybody and welcome to the latest episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
And in this week’s episode, we are going to talk about a subject which truly did change my life.
And that is, the sandwich.
Now, a lot of people might tuck into a fantastic sandwich and describe it as life changing. However, for me, that truly is the case.
Let me tell you. In 2009, I had begun writing short features for the Guardian newspaper’s “Word of Mouth” column and had submitted an article on the best sandwiches I had discovered on my journeys around the world. The feature went live as I boarded a flight to New York City to begin the tour for my first book, which by the way has the same name as this podcast, Eat My Globe -- still available at all good booksellers -- and, by the time I arrived at JFK airport and switched on my phone, I had dozens of e-mails in my inbox, including one from my editor at the newspaper to say that my piece had gone viral and garnered hundreds of responses in the comment section. Not only that, it had gone international and we were receiving requests from around the world to talk about matters sandwich related.
One of them was from the BBC World Service, who invited me to speak on their popular show “The World” from a studio in New York City. The show was fun. Afterwards, as I had lunch with my now wife, I didn’t think too much about it. Little did I know that my now manager in Los Angeles had been listening to the show on his way to work and thought that I was interesting enough to call and offer to represent me. Thus, began a journey that some ten years later finds me living in Los Angeles and writing this podcast.
So, you can see that the sandwich, or at least writing about them, really did change my life.
But, what about the history of the sandwich itself?
Around 300 million sandwiches are devoured every day in the United States alone. Add this to the 11 and a half Billion eaten every year by those in my homeland of Great Britain, and those eaten by billions of people around the world, and it would be hard to argue against the fact that the sandwich is the most popular portable snack in the world.
I guess however, before we start delving back into history, it would be wise to actually try and define what a sandwich is, for it is in debates about this definition that most of the disagreements about its origins often seem to arise.
Miriam Webster defines a sandwich as, and I quote:
“Two or more slices of bread, or a split roll, with a filling in between.” End quote.
While the Oxford English Dictionary calls it, and I quote:
“An item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with a filling between them, eaten as a light meal.” End quote.
I am not sure about the “light meal” bit, obviously they have never had the pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli, but otherwise fairly much on the mark.
Unfortunately, while these two estimable dictionaries seem to be pretty much in agreement, if you were to do what I did and follow a rabbit hole down Reddit -- I know, I know -- you will find out that outside of the world of dictionaries, there is far less agreement.
For example, New York currently interprets in its Tax Code the sandwich including burritos and wraps. However, go to neighboring Massachusetts, and a judge there decided in a 2006 judgement, that, oh no it doesn’t, when he was asked to rule if a Mexican restaurant that sold tacos and burritos was breaking a promised monopoly to a sandwich shop in a mall.
This lack of clarity extends to many historians, which is why, while there is reasonable agreement on where the name of the sandwich originated, there is much heated debate if this 18th Century moment was also the big bang for stuff between bread.
So, let’s talk about the word, sandwich.
The first time we ever see the word sandwich used to refer to food is in the journals of Edward Gibbon, who those amongst you who are fans of ancient history will know as the author of one of the great works called, “History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire.”
In an entry in his journal on November 24th, 1762 he wrote, and I quote:
“That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. 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.” End quote.
This meal had been taken at a coffee house called The Cocoa Tree after a night at the theatre and the snack to which he made the first reference had taken its name from one of his contemporaries, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who lived from 1718 to 1792.
Montagu is one of the period’s most interesting characters, perhaps because of his involvement with Francis Dashwood’s notorious club called, The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe -- or as it was later to be renamed, The Hellfire Club -- with its call to, quote, “Do What Thou Will,” end quote, and because of claims of incompetence and corruption by some of his political enemies he had developed the reputation as a rake and something of a ne’er do well.
While it’s certain that Montagu led an adventurous life, reducing that to just one of the rogues, seems rather unfair, and in his 1993 biography called, “The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718–1792,” N.A.M. Rodger paints a picture of a rather more industrious man who joined the House of Lords at the age of 21, who became Postmaster General in 1768, and served as First Lord of The Admiralty from 1748 to 1751 and from 1771 to 1782. A side note here, for those interested in American history – in 1774, Montagu was actually First Lord during the War of Independence, which took place from 1775 to 1783; he received very heavy criticism for not giving British troops sufficient naval support perhaps because of limited availability of naval vessels and for fear of losing ships to the enemy. He also suffered in his personal life watching his wife, Dorothy, descend into mental illness and losing the love of his life, Martha Ray, with whom he had at least four children, and was murdered by her stalker at the Royal Opera House.
In fact, Rodger is rather despondent about the fact that his subject has become remembered primarily for something he invented rather than for his other accomplishments, claiming that John Montagu is, and I quote, “forgotten as a man, remembered as a thing.” End quote.
However he is best remembered, what is certain is that John Montagu liked to gamble and by all accounts, he was rather good at it and capable of considerable endurance. The most widely told story about how the sandwich received its name is that during a not irregular extended period of gaming he requested that his servants bring him a slice of cold salt beef between two slices of bread, which would bring him sustenance, but also allow him to eat as he carried on playing. How the dish became increasingly popular and began to carry the name of Sandwich is still purely conjecture.
Rodger, once again, has a slightly more sober view of how Montagu began to order his eponymous dish, citing the fact that as something of a workaholic, he was more likely to have taken the meal at his desk rather than at the gaming table. I quote:
“There is no supporting evidence for this piece of gossip, and it does not seem very likely that it has any foundation, especially as it refers to 1765, when Sandwich was a Cabinet minister and very busy.” End quote.
Further, he states, and I quote:
“There is no doubt, however, that he was the real author of the sandwich, in its original form using salt beef, of which he was very fond. The alternative explanation is that he invented it to sustain himself at his desk, which seems plausible since we have ample evidence of the long hours he worked from an early start, in an age when dinner was the only substantial meal of the day, and the fashionable hour to dine was four o’clock.”
While it is perfectly possible that he did both, the latter claim doesn’t really explain from such a circumstance how the meal became fashionable outside of his office, or how it became named after him.
Also, there is additional evidence for the more popular gaming theory, supported by the first mention of the story in print, in a book by Pierre-Jean Grosley, who lived from 1718 to 1785; he was a French traveler and man of letters. In his 1772 book called Londres, which was translated into English as, quote, “A Tour to London: Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants,” end quote, and which by the way is completely fabulous and well worth a read -- the link will be on the transcript -- Grosley gives a fantastic insight into mid-18th Century England through the eyes of a traveler, covering aspects such as food, the arts, the role of nobility, the law, and even the dangers of baiting the King’s swans.
On the sandwich, Grosley states, and I quote:
“A Minister of State passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorbt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit 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.” End quote.
Whatever the circumstances of how stuff between bread began to be called Sandwiches, it’s clear, not least from Gibbon’s quote, that by the latter part of the 18th Century, that’s how they were known.
This is where historians seem to disagree quite vehemently as to whether this event is indeed a culinary big bang and the creation of a new dish, or if it is merely an interesting anecdote about how an already known dish got its name.
In her short, but fun book, “Sandwich: A Global History,” Bee Wilson takes the view, and I quote:
“The earl cannot have been the first person who, wanting some cold meat and some bread, thought to place the one inside the other.” End quote.
She then refers back to the other potential big bangs of sandwich lore, the creation of the “Korech” by the revered Rabbi Hillel. Hillel was born around 110 B.C.E. He is referred to in The Haggadah, the sacred Jewish text which lays out the order of the Seder for Passover. It instructs participants to break the bottom matzah, and I quote, “so that each participant receives two pieces. All place bitter herbs between the two pieces of matzah and say:
In Memory of the Temple: When the Temple still stood, Hillel would make a sandwich of matzah and maror and eat them together, for it is said, ‘They shall eat it with matzah and bitter herbs.’” End quote.
The reference to Hillel’s sandwich in the Haggadah is explained as, and I quote:
“The great sage Hillel did not eat the bitter herbs separately. Nor did he eat the matzah alone. Hillel lived at the time of the Holy Temple, when eating the Passover sacrifice was a part of the Passover obligations. Instead of eating the three foods separately (matzah, bitter herbs, meat from the sacrifice) he would make a sandwich combining the three and eat it while reclining. To commemorate Hillel’s sandwich (“korech”), Jews do the same today, eating the Hillel sandwich (minus the meat) while reclining.” End quote.
In other words, Hillel created this bite to bring together elements of Jewish tradition from the time of the Exodus; the Matzoh flatbread that had been eaten on the flight from Egypt, the Paschal -- i.e. served at Passover -- lamb and bitter herbs which included Hyssop, which recalled the bitterness of their time in exile.
I have to say that I do find it a bit of a stretch to connect this with the sandwich we know today, as it seems to be more of a ritualistic rite than a meal. Indeed, a similar meatless bite is taken by Jews in current Passover celebrations. Connecting this to sandwiches is, in my opinion, a little like saying that the great British art of dunking biscuits in tea has its origin in Holy Communion.
Others, however, share Bee Wilson’s view that the Earl could not have been the first to put meat and bread together. They offer other evidence of where bread and meat come together in what might be called a “proto-sandwich.” In H.D. Renner’s book called, “The Origins of Food Habits,” he argues the case of the Trencher, a flat slice from days-old loaf of bread and used as a form of tableware, upon which the meal would be placed. Renner says, and I quote:
“From the buttered bread and thick slice which was used in the Tudor period as the foundation of meat dishes there is a direct line of descent to the sandwich.” End quote.
While this is definitely a combination of bread and stuff, one of the failings in this argument is that after the meal, the trencher was most often given away to servants or to the poor by way of alms, meaning that it was rarely eaten by the person for whom it had provided tableware. So, its purely functional rather than edible use means that it epically fails as a delivery system for a sandwich.
In “Gastronomica,” author Mark Morton argues in a 2004 article entitled, “Bread and Meat for G-d’s Sake” that sandwiches had been around for a long time before John Montagu but had simply gone by another name, and I quote, “bread and meat” end quote, or quote, “bread and cheese” end quote, the order in which the words were spoken indicating that the former was the delivery system for the latter.
In Solomon. H. Katz’s “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture,” the author also challenges that Sandwich was the inventor saying, and I quote:
“In fact, Montagu was not the inventor of the sandwich; rather, during his excursions in the Eastern Mediterranean, he saw grilled pita breads and small canapés and sandwiches served by the Greeks and Turks during their mezes, and copied the concept for its obvious convenience.” End quote. Hmmm.
Although he does at least acknowledge that, and I quote:
“There is no doubt, however, that the Earl of Sandwich made this type of light repast popular among England’s gentry. . . .” End quote.
This is actually a possible argument, as we know that prior to 1739, Montagu did undertake The Grand Tour of Europe that was customary for young aristocrats and that his journey certainly took him to the more unusual destinations of Greece, Turkey and Egypt, then part of the Ottoman Empire. However, we have no evidence of what he ate there or that he copied anything. So, once again, it does boil down to nothing but conjecture.
On the other side of the coin, there are those who argue equally vigorously that the 4th Earl of Sandwich was not only the person who named the dish but also created it. In an interesting, if slightly nationalistic article on the website britishfoodinamerica.com, they offer a take down of each of the arguments stated above because of the lack of evidence. They argue that there is no evidence of anything like a sandwich before that evening at the gaming table, no pictures, no mentions in literature or in cooking or household management guides.
So, from my own point of view, I am never a fan of “big bang” moments in food history. I am quite able to believe that under similar circumstances, similar people will come up with similar solutions to similar problems, and I find it hard to accept that, in all of human history up until the mid-18th Century that no one had ever thought of placing meat or cheese between bread. However, I am also aware that there is no evidence to support this, just a common-sense view, which is many things, but not historical proof.
While trying to decide who invented the sandwich may prove frustrating, what cannot be denied is that once the sandwich had been given its name, it rapidly found its way into the cuisine of Great Britain and from there to the world.
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The first mention of sandwiches in a cookbook came in the publication of Charlotte Mason’s 1773 book called, in part, and I quote,“The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her Table: Containing One Hundred and Fifty Select Bills of Fare” end quote. The full title of her book is much longer and you can see it in the transcript. Anyway, this is another fascinating book, which contains menus ranging from light suppers for two to staggering lists of seventeen courses and also includes a reference to olive oil being the most suitable for cooking in English households -- in 1773 -- which counters that often told story that until the 1970s olive oil was only available from pharmacies in the United Kingdom.
It also contains dozens of recipes, many with which we would still be familiar today, and on page 427, contains the very first, very simple recipe for sandwiches instructing cooks to, and I quote:
“PUT some very thin slices of beef, between some thin slices of bread and butter; cut the ends off neatly, lay them in a dish. Veal and ham may be served in the same manner.” End quote.
As well as being the first, this recipe also tells us for what kind of audience sandwiches were first intended. Not only because the book itself was aimed at households who were capable of preparing and affording menus of seventeen dishes, but also because of the instruction to remove the crusts which indicates that the end result was for a more delicate diner.
This limitation did not last long, however, and it was not long before sandwiches became popular with, as Bee Wilson puts it, and I quote, “people of every profession - or no profession – in numerous settings where a knife and fork wouldn’t fit the bill.” End quote. They were eaten by both Royalty such as George III -- there are even suggestions that he and his royal family always took a sandwich on outings -- and by the poor.
By the mid-19th Century, Henry Mayhew was listing sandwich sellers among the street vendors of the nations capital in his hugely influential book called, “London Labour and The London Poor,” and I quote:
“Men and women, and most especially boys, purchase their meals day after day in the streets. The coffee-stall supplies a warm breakfast; shell-fish of many kinds tempt to a luncheon; hot-eels or pea-soup, flanked by a potato ‘all hot,’ serve for a dinner; and cakes and tarts, or nuts and oranges, with many varieties of pastry, confectionary, and fruit, woo to indulgence in a dessert; while for supper there is a sandwich, a meat pudding, or a ‘trotter.’” End quote.
References to sandwiches also began to appear in fictional literature, a sure sign that they had become part of popular parlance. For example, Charles Dickens mentions them in his 1857 novel called, Little Dorrit, saying, and I quote:
“…about mid-day when a glass of sherry and a humble sandwich of whatever cold meat in the larder might not come amiss.” End quote.
As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the United Kingdom, at the end of the 18th Century, bringing with it the growth of the railway network in the first half of the 19th Century, the sandwich proved to be the perfect meal for those who were travelling both across the country, and later across the growing networks that evolved over Europe. In 1852, a book entitled, “Hints to Railway Travellers, and Country Visitors to London,” written by someone who dubbed themselves, and I quote, “An Old Stager,” end quote, even gave advice on how best to eat if travelling by rail. And I quote:
“Carry your own provisions, by which means you can dine when you are hungry, instead of when the railway directors think you ought to be. Chickens cut up, and tongue sliced, with bread, biscuits, cakes, and so on, are most convenient. Don’t forget the salt. Buy sandwiches if you do buy. The quickest Express generally gives time for drinking, but if you don’t like getting out of the carriage you can add sherry and water, or brandy and water, to the stock. Ask how long the train stops before you alight, and on no account attempt to do so before it stops.” End quote.
This, along with the wide distribution of previous writings of people such as Pierre Jean Grosley might help to explain how the joys of eating sandwiches began to spread to Europe. And from Europe they rapidly spread through trade and colonization to the rest of the world. The “Torta” we see in Mexico, some say, has its roots in France. The sandwiches that now seem familiar to anyone who travels in Japan have their roots in the development of the soft white Shokupan sandwich bread that developed after the end of WWII, and if anyone amongst you has not yet tried a Bombay Green Chutney sandwich from India, you have not yet lived.
And yet, I hear you ask, what about the one country who has really taken sandwiches to their heart? What about the country that has taken a humble snack and turned it into an art form? What about the one country where entire regions can be recognized for the type of sandwiches for which they are most famous? How did the sandwich become so beloved in the United States of America, so popular that they now consume, as I mentioned, over 300 million of them a day?
The most popular claim to be the first recipe for sandwiches in the United States are from Eliza Leslie’s 1837 work called, “Directions for Cookery,” it’s a book which appears to pay homage to Charlotte Mason’s book called, “Lady’s Assistant” in its structure and particularly in Leslie’s recipe for ham sandwich which reads, and I quote:
“Cut some thin slices of bread very neatly, having slightly buttered them; and, if you choose, spread on a very little mustard. Have ready some very thin slices of cold boiled ham, and lay one between two slices of bread. You may either roll them up, or lay them flat on the plates. They are used at supper. You may substitute for the ham, cold smoked tongue, shred or grated.” End quote.
However, I have found one book called, “The Cooks Own Book,” credited to a quote, a “Boston Housekeeper,” end quote, otherwise known as Mrs. N.K.M. Lee, which actually predates the “Directions for Cookery” book by some five years, being published in 1832. In “The Cook’s Own Book,” the author offers her own recipe for sandwiches, and I quote:
“Cut some bread into thin slices, pare off the crust and spread a little butter on them: cut them nicely into oblong pieces, put between some bits of fowl, and then some bits of ham, then nicely trimmed: add a little mustard and salt. Any cold roasted or potted meat may be used. Serve them for luncheon garnished with curled parsley.” End quote.
While this recipe is similar to others that we have seen before, what’s really interesting is Mrs. Lee’s next entry, which states, and I quote:
“SANDWICHES, (2) Properly prepared, are an elegant and convenient luncheon or supper, but have gone out of fashion, from the bad manner in which they are commonly made.” End quote.
Now that shows us that sandwiches had already been present in the United States for long enough to have come in and gone out of fashion again by the early part of the 19th Century.
Mrs. Lee, however, was wrong. Sandwiches had definitely not gone out of fashion. However, the initial reaction of those in America to the sandwich was more of a slow burn. This did not last long however, and sandwiches began to become increasingly popular, particularly in the early part of the 20th Century.
In 1928, the first pre-sliced bread was put on sale and was an immediate hit with families who saw the time benefits of buying bread that did not have to be sliced. Added to which, previously, lunch counters went from serving sliced meats on lettuce leaves to serving them as sandwiches, in an attempt to get their customers to grab their food and run, helping to turn tables.
And in the nearly 200 years since these first recipes for simple meat sandwiches were first shared, the American obsession with the sandwich has grown and continues to grow to the point where they have become an intrinsic part of American identity.
What could be more comforting to any American child than a peanut butter & jelly sandwich? And, what dish is more American than a Hamburger? The history of which will be coming up on another future episode, I promise you, so watch this space.
And, how better, if you reference anything, as I do, through food, to let people know where you are than by reference to a sandwich? If you think of New Orleans, you will almost certainly think of a Po’Boy, or a muffuletta. If you think of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, it won’t be long before you think of that mammoth pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli. And if you think of the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, admit it, you thought “cheesesteak” before I even finished the word, didn’t you. If you think of New England, that’s right, a lobster roll comes immediately to mind, and if you come to my own hometown of Los Angeles, I’ll take you to Philippe’s, the originator of the glorious roast beef French Dip.
Each of these stories has a fascinating sandwich history all of its own, but perhaps that’s for another episode.
However, it’s fair to say that the sandwich has definitely come a long way since John Montagu first asked a servant to bring him some salt beef between two slices of bread, so he could carry on playing cards. And, if you want to have some indirect experience with John Montagu, his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson has, apparently, set up a franchise aptly called, “Earl of Sandwich” in some parts of the US, where it serves a sandwich called, “The Original 1762” that consists of roast beef, cheddar and horseradish on two pieces of bread.
So, after all this talk of sandwiches I am starving, So, I am heading back off to the kitchen to make myself a bacon sandwich. See you next time.
So, make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at EatMyGlobe.com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, just in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if you have any questions or if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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So thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we will speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions” and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History and its Public History Initiative Director, Karen Wilson, Ph.D. We would also like to thank Annie Powers for her help with extra research for this particular episode and Sybil Villanueva both for her help with the research and in the preparations of the transcripts.
Published: October 8, 2018
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.