History of the sandwich
May 5, 2008
The sandwich, slices of meat or other food placed between two pieces of bread (or sometimes on top), is a form of food that has been around for centuries.
The Earl of “Sandwich”
The name sandwich originated in the 18th century, named for John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), England, who was responsible for popularizing the style. The Earl was a statesman and also an avid gambler. He was inspired by his diplomatic trips to the Eastern Mediterranean where he observed the Greeks and Turks stuffing pita bread with meats and other fillings. He realized this flavorful, convenient snack would allow gamblers to remain at the gaming table without breaking for supper. The Earl introduced his own version of the dish to his pals, who were happy to satisfy their appetites without interrupting their betting.
The Sandwich Enters Society
The practice of serving sandwiches soon moved into general society as a popular late night meal at society balls. A well-known French chef working in London at the time formalized the presentation and turned the simple sandwich into an extravagant catering item. Elaborate sandwiches of poached fillet of pheasant and guinea hen were served at large social gatherings.
America’s First Fast Food
During the nineteenth century, the midday dinner (what we now call lunch) was the main meal of the day. Supper (what we now call dinner) consisted of lighter fare made with leftovers-perfect for making into sandwiches. English author Charlotte Mason wrote the first cook book recipes for sandwiches. She recommended placing very thin slices of beef between thin slices of buttered bread with crusts removed. Victorian home cooks studied her suggestions and sandwiches began to be offered at the family table. The dish rapidly became popular for teas and picnics as well. Sandwiches were served widely at taverns and inns.
The first American cook book writer to publish sandwich recipes was Eliza Leslie, who described how to make a ham sandwich with mustard. With the rise of the railroads in America, the sandwich became the first fast food, sold in dining cars and at train stations to hungry travelers. At the turn of the century, taverns and saloons offered free sandwiches with drinks as a way to attract customers. During this period, the club sandwich was created and served to businessmen in the dark-paneled dining rooms of their private clubs.
Sandwiches and Their Cities
While captains of industry were eating their club sandwiches, working men were enjoying heartier versions. A popular sandwich was a meal in itself made on a long, narrow loaf dubbed a “submarine”. This style of sandwich was known under different names regionally including hero, sub, grinder, hoagie, poor boy and torpedo. Ingredients varied according to local preference. A Philadelphia hoagie was essentially southern Italian antipasto on a roll; a New Orleans Po’ Boy was fried oyster in a bun. Wide experimentation with cheese, fillings, condiments and toppings took place at this time.
The popularity of the luncheonette in the 1920s saw the rise of the hot sandwich. Grilled cheese became a national obsession. A regional variation of this hot treat was the Cuban, an assortment of meats and cheeses on a soft roll pressed on a grill and eaten hot. There is debate whether this sandwich was invented in New Jersey, New York or Tampa, Florida, which had a large population of Cuban immigrants working in the cigar industry. Arguably, the most famous hot American sandwich is the Reuben, introduced in New York City. Although the Reuben is often associated with corned beef, the original consisted of turkey, ham, Swiss cheese, Cole slaw and Russian dressing. Pastrami was a variation that came later, often topped with sauerkraut. The hamburger evolved from a meat patty eaten with bread and gravy. The hot dog began life as a sausage on a roll. Both of these, while strictly speaking sandwiches, have achieved enough status and popularity to be regarded as categories on their own.
Today, the sandwich is found in culinary traditions around the world from Mexico’s Tortas to the Bánh mì of Viet Nam to the Lobster Roll of New England. The sandwich is a microcosm of regional tastes and a reflection of personal preferences, with virtually infinite possibilities in terms of ingredients and combinations.