Steve Woods

Sandwiches – The Original Mashup

In What Day is it? on November 3, 2009 at 6:32 am

“Life is like a sandwich. The more you add to it, the better it becomes.”  ~ Unknown


Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu

As the story goes, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was playing cards one night in 1782 with other muckety-mucks, something he did quite often.  Getting hungry but not wanting to stop and eat a proper meal (hence interrupting what was a very good game,) Montagu asked his valet that some sliced meat be brought to him, stuck between two slices of bread so he wouldn’t get his fingers greasy.  The other players, noting the request, stated aloud “I’ll have the same as Sandwich!”   This story was first noted in 1770, and has had a lot of runtime since, although never proven to be true.  But I love unproven stories… National Sandwich Day is celebrated today, in honor of Montagu’s birth on Nov. 3rd, 1718.

History of the Sandwich

The sandwich is the original mashup.  The concept of putting meat and bread together in one form or another has been around for a very long time.  In the 1st Century Rabbi Hillel enjoyed a thick mixture of nuts, apples, spice and wine between layers of unleavened matzot bread.   This was eaten alongside the traditional bitter herbs to commemorate Passover, and to this day is called the “Hillel Sandwich.”


Dining in the Middle Ages

In the 6th Century, tavern-goers in the Middle Ages would eat meat with sauces on large, thick slices of stale bread, open-faced sandwiches known as Trenchers.  The hard bread sopped up the sauces and softened to an edible state, at which point it was either eaten, tossed to dogs, or given to beggars.  In Northern European countries, softer versions of bread were layered with butters and carefully sliced meats, likely an early predecessor to the English version of the modern sandwich.

What was a sandwich called before it got its current name?  Up to the 16th Century, the combination of bread and meat was called, well, bread and meat.  I suppose it wasn’t imaginative, but it did the job…

The Sandwich Arrives in America


Elizabeth Leslie

How did the sandwich make its way to America?  In 1840 Englishwoman Elizabeth Leslie wrote a cookbook called Directions for Cookery wherein she introduced a recipe for a ham sandwich.  Really? A recipe? For a ham sandwich?  Elizabeth suggested the sandwich as a main dish.  That must’ve been one heck of a sandwich.  Ham was typically used in American sandwiches, as it was much easier to come across than beef, which was more prevalent in England.

During the Industrial Revolution, as bread-making and meat preserving became more prevalent, sandwiches became the oft-chosen lunch option for workers, as it was quick, easy and relatively inexpensive.  The early versions typically included some form of sliced vegetable, meat, and even cheese.  On July 7, 1928 the Chillicothe Baking Company began marketing pre-sliced wrapped bread loaves, and the sandwich positively took off…. (Note: The Wonder Bread Company is oft-credited as inventing sliced bread first, in 1930. Not true – they are the first to market it nationally.)


Army C Rations

During the Temperance movement, barkeeps worked hard to keep customers coming despite the growing ban on alcohol, offering free sandwiches with drinks, thus furthering its popularity.  As workers commuted greater distances to work, train stations began selling sandwiches to weary travelers, who scooped them up rather than consider making dinner so late in the early evening.

In World War II, soldiers would put together the canned or otherwise packaged peanut butter, jellies and bread they found in their C Rations and invented the PB&J.  Returning home from war, the soldiers shared their favorite sandwich with their growing children, and a perennial American favorite was born.

What is Legally a Sandwich?


Not legally a sandwich...

Believe it or not, in 2006 the Superior Court of Boston, Massachusetts had to rule what a sandwich is.  A shopping mall had lured a sandwich shop as a vendor, with the provision that the mall management would not allow another “sandwich shop” to set up a storefront in the mall.  Along came a burrito stand, and the sandwich shop challenged their right to set up shop.  A judge had to determine what the legal definition of a “sandwich” was, and after much thought, ruled that a sandwich is composed of at least two slices of bread,   Because no burritos (or tacos, chimichangas, wraps or pitas) may claim this title, the sandwich shop owner lost his challenge.

Sandwiches Around the World

Regional variations on the sandwich (legal definition aside) include the Vietnamese Bahn Mi, Chilean Barros, Pakistan’s Bun Kebab, Germany’s Butterbrot, English Chip Butty, Uruguayan Chivito, New York Hero, Philadelphia Cheesesteak, Greek Gyro, Chinese Shaobing Youtiao and more.  Seems there is no shortage of the idea to combine bread with something good.  Breads are either sliced, wrapped, or covered in a dough and boiled, fried or baked along with their fillings.  In many cultures, much as it is in American, the sandwich and its many variations are the staple luncheon fare.


The incredible but inedible Dagwood


The Impossible and Improbable Dagwood

Hey, you can’t write something about the history of the sandwich without including the Dagwood, a concoction created by Chic Young and featured in Blondie, his comic strip. The original mention of the Dagwood included beef tongue, onion, mustard, sardine, beans and horseradish.  Yum.  You know, beans as a sandwich additive are certainly under-represented.

Over the years, more and more was added to the Dagwood, reaching epic proportions.  If life truly is like a sandwich, and the more we add the better it gets, then the Dagwood reminds us of the joys received in biting off more than we can chew…


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