Rosa’s Musings: There is more to a sandwich than two slices of bread, a brief history of the sandwich
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.
Memorable And Forgettable Sandwiches
“Too few people understand a really good sandwich.”–James Beard
In today’s world, sandwiches are an essential part of our busy life whether we are wealthy or poor. It is most often a rather crude, tasteless, unsatisfying grub gobbled down in great haste, and is unfortunately very seldom truly enjoyed. Its main and only aim is to fill the hungry stomachs of people in no time flat. Albeit this convenient staple having its utility if you are an active person who cannot go back home for lunch or dinner, let’s not forget that the majority of us has a preference for its leisurely alter ego, as no picnic or party would be complete without it.
Although it is difficult to imagine our existence without sandwiches, most of us entertain a love/hate relationship with them, as not all sandwiches are created equal. The quality of the ingredients used and the pleasure they bring can vary greatly from one sandwich to another. As a matter of fact, there are two distinct categories of sandwiches: the luscious ones which leave everlasting memories and the horrid ones which are immediately forgotten or stay marked in our mind because they were so disgusting that they traumatized us to the highest degree.
Certain sandwiches are pure culinary gems; others are pure culinary disasters. The first kind glorifies all things gourmet whilst the second represents the decadence of modern food habits and is an insult to the art of cooking.
Just like us humans, sandwiches come in all shapes, colours and sizes:
- downright “dirty “doorstops” such as hoagies (submarine sandwich), chip butty/French fry sandwich, meatball sandwich, rich boy, pulled pork sandwich, bierock, hot dog, muffuletta, sloppy Joe, etc.
- dainty (finger sandwiches)
- historically rich (bagel sandwich, po’boy, Reuben, pastrami sandwich, hamburger, croque monsieur, pan bagnat, lobster sandwich, kebab, panini, smørrebrød, etc.),
- exotic (bàhn mi, tortilla wraps, Barros Luco, Swedish polar bread sandwich, Cuban sandwich, falafel sandwich, pita sandwich, gyro sandwich, etc.)
- cheap (any low-quality sandwich found in most chain-bakeries or supermarkets)
- posh (club sandwich, English teatime sandwiches)
- healthy or special diet (vegetarian, organic, gluten-free, etc.)
- gastronomic (the new generation of sandwiches made with artisan bread, seasonal and local produce)
- and childhood-related (P & J, Nutella sandwich, banana sandwich, chips/crisp sandwich, grilled cheese sandwich, etc.).
As a general rule, it is wise to avoid industrially prepared sandwiches. Those tired-looking, soggy or shockingly dry, repulsive and bland, calorie-laden specimens are composed of cheap, unhealthy and unexciting ingredients (fake bread that is often made abroad and imported, tasteless margarine, tired salad leaves, plastic cheese, meat chock-a-block full of monosodium glutamate and additives, disgusting mayonnaise bought by the ton, canned food, out-of-season vegetables that have lost all their nutrients, etc.) and give the sandwich a bad name.
Thankfully the good news is that “the real thing” is far from dying out, and one can observe a global sandwich revival/revolution that is closely linked to the awakening of consumers’ food consciousness. In our time, it is constantly being reinvented, modernized; it is evolving day by day. Nowadays many talented chefs and bakers around the world are showing their creativity by pimping up that scrumptious nosh, hence bringing back its former glory and making it gain back its once honourable reputation. Their marvellous creations are influenced by the culinary traditions of faraway lands (Asia, Mediterranean, South America, etc.), contain seasonal, regional and sustainable produce, are made with quality ingredients, have a lot of flavour and offer a myriad of variations.
Sandwiches are not only eaten, for the sake of efficiency, while walking down the street or sitting in front of the computer anymore, but are now savoured calmly while sitting at the table of luminous, trendy and avant-garde cafés and bars, or chic restaurants, artisan bakeries and self-service restaurants.
Goodbye to the old sad, nefarious and mediocre sandwich and welcome to the epicurean sammie!
Childhood Memories and Adult Life
Considering the fact that sandwiches are a constituent of our identity, and that food connects us with memories, touches our hearts deeply and stays forever marked in our minds, many of us have precious anecdotes attached to that bready chow. We all can fondly remember a particular childhood sandwich and recall the events or stories surrounding its conception and consumption.
As far as I can recall, store-bought sandwiches have always left me cold, as I have never come across one that was not plain and uninteresting, poor quality, characterless, stingy and vile. By no means am I a big fan of those shamefully mean ham sandwiches made with processed meat and margarine, sickeningly mayonnaise-laden tuna sandwiches, icky chicken curry sandwiches containing frozen poultry from Brazil, faceless processed cheese sandwiches and yucky vegetarian sandwiches with mealy tomatoes. Just the thought of them makes me feel nauseous!
On the contrary, the family sandwiches I devoured as a child were incredibly peachy and mouth-watering, as they were prepared with fragrant homemade bread and the best ingredients available on the market. My mother used to prepare a wide range of homemade sandwiches depending on what she found in the fridge or pantry. It is impossible to forget her chips and Swiss Tomme Vaudoise cheese sandwiches that I ate at school during the 9 a.m. break; Appenzeller and lettuce sandwiches, which I gobbled at in the afternoon while doing my homework; leftover corned beef, horseradish and radish sandwiches, upon which we grazed when hiking in the Jura mountains, and her mayonnaise, onion jam and Tabasco hamburgers that we stuffed ourselves with when my father could not come back home for lunch. My English grandmother’s cucumber, onion and tuna sandwiches as well as toasted (grilled cheese) sandwiches were also epic and are indissociable from the long walks we took in the Peak District or the evening meals we had in the flowery garden annexed to their 19th-century stone-built nailer’s cottage. Those were unique sandwiches that constitute a piece of my “patrimony.”
Now, as a grownup, I create sandwiches in a totally improvised manner, just like I was taught at home. I get my inspiration from my American and English food magazines and cookbooks, what I find on market stalls or in my kitchen. I love to let my imagination flow and do the work.
The recipe I have decided to share with you today was invented on the spur of the moment while I was feeling particularly playful and witty. These refined, dainty and scrumptious little “Cheddar, Bacon And Egg Scone Sandwiches” have a certain British flair and are an ode to spring. They will delight those of you who adore traditional English breakfasts or afternoon teas as well as finger food, and are perfect for picnics, brunches and aperitifs. A wonderful idea for your Easter feast…
Cheddar, Bacon and Egg Scone Sandwiches
Makes 8 medium sandwiches
8 scones (“Plain Scones” recipe here – add 1 Tbs Caraway seeds in step 2)
80g unsalted butter
16 strips bacon
180-200g orange (or pale) Cheddar cheese, cut into 12 equal slices
3 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced
1 red onion, finely sliced (into rings)
English “Brown Sauce”, to taste
16 Tbs alfalfa and onion sprouts
- Cut the scones in half and butter them.
- Fry the bacon until slightly crispy but not too dry, then drain it on kitchen paper.
- Place 2 slices of cheddar on the bottom of each scone, then add 3 slices hard-boiled eggs, a few rings red onion and 2 strips of bacon.
- Pour on some brown sauce, top with 2 tablespoon sprouts, and close the sandwiches.