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The History of the Sandwich

Everybody has at least one favorite, the one that makes your stomach growl just thinking about it. Be it a triple decker ham and Swiss, a hot pastrami with spicy mustard, or a mouth-watering grilled cheese — one this is for sure — a sandwich is something anyone, and everyone, loves to sink their teeth into.

Americans individually eat close to 200 sandwiches per year on average. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sandwich as an item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with a filling between them, eaten as a meal. It’s a simple concept with an endless amount of possibilities. So, who came up with this innovative way of serving food? In celebration of August’s “National Sandwich Month,” let’s look back through history to see when the sandwich became the most versatile recipe across all cultures, traditions and ages.

While the most common inventor is thought to be the Earl of Sandwich, the true history of the sandwich goes back much further.

The first recorded sandwich was by the famous rabbi, Hillel the Elder, who lived during the 1st century B.C. He started the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between two matzohs to eat with bitter herbs. The filling between the matzahs served as a reminder of the suffering of the Jews before their deliverance from Egypt and represented the mortar used by the Jews in their forced labor of constructing Egyptian buildings. Because he was the first known person to do this, and because of his influence and stature in Palestinian Judaism, this practice was added to the Seder and the Hillel Sandwich was named after him.

During the Middle Ages, thick blocks of coarse stale bread called “trenchers” were used in place of plates. Meats and other foods were piled on top of the bread to be eaten with their fingers and sometimes with the aid of knives. The trenchers, thick and stale, absorbed the juice, the grease, and the sauces. At the end of the meal, one either ate the trencher or, if hunger had been satisfied, tossed the gravy-soaked bread to their dogs. Trenchers were clearly the forerunner of our open-face sandwiches.

Throughout English dramas from the 16th and 17th centuries, the sandwich appears to have been simply known as “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese.” In Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” he writes, “I love not the humor of bread and cheese.” Dozens of other plays from the same era also make reference to the modern day sandwich, all written long before the Earl of Sandwich was even born.  

The first written record of the word “sandwich” appeared in English author Edward Gibbon’s journal on November 24, 1762. Gibbon recorded his surprise at seeing the noblest and wealthiest people in the land, seated in a noisy coffee-room, at little tables covered by small napkins, and eating bread with cold meat. The mere fact that high society was dining on sandwiches would indicate that a new food fad was on the horizon among the English elite.

During this time, John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, was entrenched in London’s social scene. It’s possible that Montagu, having witnessed the same bread and meat trend, introduced the sandwich concept as his own to his high society London friends. Because of the Earl’s nobility, Gibbon dubbed it the “sandwich” helped it to gain quick notoriety in his writings.

As the sandwich gained popularity, it is believed that the cooks at London’s Beef Steak Club, a gentlemen’s gaming club held at the Shakespeare Tavern, marketed the first sandwich in 1762. This club was very exclusive to a limited amount of members, one of which was the Prince of Wales.

Sandwiches first appeared in American cookbooks in 1816. The fillings were no longer limited to cold meat, as recipes called for a variety of things, including cheese, fruit, shellfish, nuts and mushrooms. The years following the Civil War saw an increase in sandwich consumption, and they could be found anywhere from high-class luncheons to the taverns of the working class. By the end of the 19th century, sandwiches earned new names for their many different forms, like the triple-layered club sandwich”and the corned beef Reuben.”

From that point on, the American fascination and infatuation with sandwiches was born! By the 1900’s the sandwich had become one of the most popular meals in the American diet.

In the late 1920s, when Gustav Papendick invented a way to slice and package bread, sandwiches found a new audience. Mothers could easily assemble a sandwich without the need to slice their bread, and children could safely make their own lunches without the use of a knife. The portability and ease of sandwiches caught on with families, and the sandwich became a lunchroom staple.

The Earl of Sandwich’s legacy lives on today in more than just the name. John Montagu’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandson Orlando Montagu founded a chain of sandwich restaurants called — what else? — Earl of Sandwich. The menu features an homage to the Earl’s first, most famous sandwich called the “Original 1762” and includes hot roast beef, sharp cheddar, and creamy horseradish sauce served on warm bread.

Sandwiches are now popular all over the world, and it seems like every region has their own take on the concept. In Cuba, restaurants serve ham and cheese on Cuban bread. In the Middle East, falafel or shawarma in a pita pocket is the fast food of choice. In France, a Croque Monsieur or Croque Madame can be found in most cafés. In Italy, simple and rustic panino sandwiches are the norm. In New York, pastrami on rye is king, though the Reuben takes a close second. In Philadelphia, it’s all about the cheesesteak. Sandwiches come in endless varieties, making them one of the most popular foods worldwide. Thanks, Earl!

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