by Rosa Mayland
A Brief History of the Sandwich
In this brief history of the sandwich, you’ll learn that a sandwich is an extremely versatile and universal food item consisting of two slices of bread in the middle of which is encased a filling, or of a single slice of bread garnished with a topping (tartines/bruschetta, smørrebrød, canapés, etc.). In both cases they come in an infinite number of varieties that differ in flavour, style, texture and size.
The origin of the term dates back to 1762 and saw the light of day in East Kent, England. According to legend, John Montagu aka the Fourth Earl of Sandwich was so busy gambling that he did not want to stop his activities in order to dine, so he ordered the waiter to bring him slices of roast beef enclosed in two wedges of bread. In this way, he could continue playing while eating and would in no manner dirty his fingers. That is how this quick and improvised snack became known as “sandwich”.
Even if the Earl gave his name to this popular “speciality,” it is to be said that bread has been served with meat and/or vegetables for centuries before this “invention” and that its forefather probably already existed in Neolithic times with the advent of the domestication of wheat. The first form of sandwich is attributed to the ancient Jewish wise man Hillel the Elder (~1st century B.C.) from Babylon who apparently put meat from the lamb sacrificed for Passover and bitter herbs (horseradish, chicory, sow thistle, eryngo, and lettuce) between pieces of matzo (kosher cracker-like, unleavened bread). Another genre of sandwich was common during the Middle Ages: thick slabs of stale bread called “trenchers” were used as plates and can be regarded as the precursors to the open-faced sandwich.
At the beginning, sandwiches represented a humble and simple lower-class meal, but by the middle of the 18th century, the aristocracy started serving them as a late-night collation, and they were considered very chic. Then with the breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and its hordes of restless workers slaving away in factories, sandwiches became a working-class luncheon, since they were practical, easily accessible, nourishing (calorific), inexpensive, portable and could be eaten in a rush.
After having first appeared in England as well as Spain, the sandwich rapidly spread through the rest of Europe and the United States, where it was first promoted as an elaborate main dish. The 20th century saw the rise of the sandwich in the U.S. and the Mediterranean when bread became an indispensable component of people’s diet and started being consumed in much larger quantities than in the past.