All About Sandwiches

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Podcast Transcript

Sandwiches are one of the most popular types of food in the world. They are incredibly easy to make, can be incredibly cheap, and they come in numerous varieties. 

Yet, the humble sandwich is also the subject of a great deal of controversy. What type of sandwich is best? Where did sandwiches come from? …and perhaps the greatest question of all, is a hot dog a sandwich?

Learn more about sandwiches and their history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m going to assume that everyone listening to this knows what a sandwich is and that the vast majority of you have eaten some sort of sandwich at some point. 

However, despite everyone’s familiarity with sandwiches, it is probably necessary to define what a sandwich is. This is actually the first problem we are going to encounter in this episode because, despite everyone’s intuitive understanding of what a sandwich is, there is disagreement about the definition. 

One of the common definitions you’ll find is from the Cambridge Dictionary, which defines a sandwich as “two pieces of bread with food such as cheese, salad, or meat between them.”

This definition seems all well and good, but soon you’ll realize that there are many things called sandwiches that do not necessarily meet this definition. An open-faced sandwich is just stuff piled on a single piece of bread. 

There are ice cream sandwiches, which are ice cream between two pieces of a cake-type substance, not bread. It’s kind of a sandwich, or at least sandwich-esque, but not a sandwich by the strict definition of the term. 

For the purpose of this episode, I’m going with the dictionary definition, but as we’ll see, there are many edge cases in classifying sandwiches.

So, with that being said, what is the history of sandwiches, and who invented them? 

The truth is, we really don’t know. Putting something between two pieces of bread is not rocket science, and the first person to have done this was most likely someone in antiquity. It also isn’t like there are fossilized sandwiches out there that archeologists can dig up.

However, the first recorded instance of someone mentioning something that we can point to as being like a sandwich ??dates back to the 1st century B.C. when the famous Jewish rabbi, Hillel the Elder, is reputed to have wrapped lamb meat and bitter herbs between two pieces of matzah during Passover.

Matzah is bread, albeit unleavened bread, and so it’s more like a cracker than the leven bread you’d normally see on a sandwich. This is one of those grey areas when it comes to the definition of a sandwich. 

The bigger point, however, is that this establishes at least some sort of point in history that we can be sure people were making sandwich-adjacent creations.  However, given that people were making bread for thousands of years before the first century BC, it is highly likely there were some sort of sandwich creations being made long before. 

In the middle ages, it was common to use what was known as a trencher. A trencher was nothing more than a large slab of usually stale bread that was used as a type of plate. Food was put on the trencher, and the bread would absorb any fats and juices in it. 

Trenchers would then either be fed to dogs, the poor, or eaten, depending on how rich or poor you were. 

Again, in a way, if you accept an open-face sandwich as a sandwich, then a trencher would have been a type of sandwich. If not a sandwich, then at least it was an early proto-sandwich that involved putting stuff on bread.

The development of what we would all probably recognize as a sandwich, or at least the popularization of what we would call a sandwich, didn’t come about until the 18th century. 

Legend has it that the popularity of sandwiches came about from a man named John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. 

Before I get into who John Montagu was, I should note what the Earldom of Sandwich is.

The Earldom of Sandwich is a hereditary peerage established in 1660. It was given to Admiral Sir Edward Montagu. He sided with the parliamentarians during the English Civil War, but after Oliver Cromwell’s death, he helped restore the monarchy. 

In honor of his service, he was given a peerage, and the region that the peerage was named after was one of the most important ports in England at the time, the town of Sandwich. 

Sandwich is located in Southeast England, not far from the white cliffs of Dover. Its importance as a port at the time had to do with its close proximity to the coast of France. 

The word sandwich, with reference to the town, comes from the word sand and the old Anglo-Saxon suffix -wic. -wic means “a dwelling or fortified place where trade takes place.” 

-wic later morphed into -wich. So, sandwich means a “market town on sandy soil.”

So, how does a word meaning “market town on sandy soil” wind up describing a food that is something between two slices of bread? 

This brings me back to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. 

According to legend, the Earl of Sandwich was a compulsive gambler. He would often marathon gambling sessions where he wouldn’t leave the table for twenty-four hours straight. 

During these gambling bouts, he would often order his valet to bring him two pieces of bread with some roast beef in the middle. This was simply his go-to meal while sitting at the card tables. 

Eventually, it became popular enough that other people ordered the same thing. When they ordered it, they would just say, “Same as Sandwich!” and the same stuck to that type of food. 

You might have heard this story about how the sandwich got its name before. However, like so many stories, the truth often turns out to be different from the legend. So, how accurate is the story about the origins of the sandwich?

The first reference to the word sandwich as a food comes from the diary of the English historian Edward Gibbon. In his entry on November 24, 1762, he wrote that he saw men eating “a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich…”

Gibbon’s reference to a sandwich doesn’t confirm or deny the origin with the Earl of Sandwich, but the time of the mention is concurrent with when the legend says it would have come into use. 

The origin of the actual legend comes from a French writer named Pierre-Jean Grosley. He was visiting London in 1762, and he wrote his observations in a book in French titled Londres in 1770, which was then translated into English in 1772 under the title A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants. 

In it, he tells the story of the Earl of Sandwich ordering meat between slices of bread, but he never refers to it as a sandwich. 

Historians have no doubt that the word sandwich came from the Earl of Sandwich. The only discrepancy I’ve found came from Sandwich’s biographer, who claims that he spent too much time working to have been at the gambling tables. 

So, the 4th Earl of Sandwich was probably the sandwich’s namesake and helped popularize it, but he did not invent it.

By the late 18th century, the sandwich was a thing, and there was now a word in English to describe it. 

It was noted in 1789 that King George III’s family would often take sandwiches with them on outings, given the food a royal seal of approval. 

What really turbocharged the popularity of sandwiches was the Industrial Revolution. 

In an agricultural society, there was time to go home from the field to eat a proper meal. When you were working in a factory, there was no time to go home and eat in the middle of the work day. You needed something quick and easy to eat, and sandwiches were the perfect solution. 

By 1850, 70 street vendors in London were recorded as selling ham and cheese sandwiches. Around the same time, establishments began springing up in Europe that sold sandwiches as their primary product. Many of the sandwiches served were often made using cheaper cuts of meat, such as liver or salted beef.

Sandwiches really took off in the late 19th century when they became popularized in America. New types of sandwiches that were more elaborate were developed. 

In the 1890s, a new sandwich called a club sandwich began to appear on New York menus. The club sandwich is believed to have originated at either the Union Club in New York City or the Saratoga Club in Saratoga Springs. 

In 1901, the Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science & Domestic Economics published the first recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

Throughout the early 20th century, a host of very similar sandwiches were popularized. They go by many names, including submarine, hoagies, grinders, Italian, and, depending on the contents, po boys. What they all have in common is that they are rather long and usually use French or Italian bread. 

The 1920s saw a host of innovations that made it even easier for people to enjoy sandwiches. Probably the biggest single innovation was the sale of presliced bread. If you remember one of my earliest episodes on the subject, once pre-sliced bread came on the market, people couldn’t get enough of it.

It was perfect for quickly making sandwiches. 

Around the same time, other products were also making it easy to make sandwiches as well. Prepackaged peanut butter and jelly began being sold, as did processed cold cuts. 

Between presliced bread and prepackaged sandwich fillings, even a child could easily make a sandwich for themselves. 

In 1925, a Nebraska grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky reportedly came up with the idea of the corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich to feed his buddies while playing poker. Today, that sandwich bears his name and is called a Ruben. 

After World War II, the bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich became widespread, primarily because of improvements in shipping and refrigeration, which made the ingredients of the sandwich available year-round. 

Sandwiches have become a huge part of modern life. 

The Guardian newspaper in the UK estimated that the average British person will consume over 18,300 sandwiches in their lifetime. 

In the United States, every day, over 300 million sandwiches of every sort are consumed. 

In 2023, the website commissioned a survey of Americans to find out what their favorite sandwich was. In first place was the grilled cheese sandwich, and in second place was the B.L.T.

Sandwiches are such an important part of the world of modern food that most people don’t even think about them. They are so ubiquitous and widespread that they have become part of the landscape. 

Yet, sandwiches are part of a culinary tradition that date back thousands of years and was popularized by an English earl who didn’t want to take time off from playing cards. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from Joeface530 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

A favorite, for sure

Where else can you learn such a variety of topics? From molasses to Crassus and so much more. My wife has finally stopped asking, “Where’d you learn that.” She knows it’s from the Arndt Academy of Everything. Thank you for entertaining me and educating me as well. As I have just joined the completionist club, I will miss listening during my travels through the southeast. I may have to join the Carolinas Club for the dual completionists so I can use the private entrance. Keep up the good work!

Thanks, Joeface! I have to confess, I think I’m going to steal that “molasses to Crassus” line. It’s a pretty good one. All completionist club members are welcome to all of the clubs worldwide. However, if you want, you listen to all the episodes twice to achieve elite platinum status. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.