Chances are, you ate a sandwich recently. That isn’t mere speculation on my part; according to food-industry statistics, the average American eats 193 sandwiches per year. Even allowing for the fact that you are a way-above-average American, you’re eating plenty of sandwiches, right?
We’re not including wraps and burritos and other hand-held variations, either. We’re talking about an official sandwich: two or more pieces of bread that have at least one layer of something edible between them.
Some authorities trace the origin of the sandwich back many centuries, where its remains were found in a bachelor’s refrigerator. The most common explanation, however, involves John Montagu (1718-1792), whose hereditary title was 4th Earl of Sandwich.
He was known to enjoy gambling, and supposedly one night in 1762 during a marathon card game, he ordered a servant to bring him some meat between two pieces of bread. This enabled Montagu to continue playing cards while having a meal. Having bread on the top and bottom meant he didn’t have to touch meat with his bare hands, so the cards didn’t get greasy.
Others in his circle of acquaintances began to order up this nameless food item by calling to the servants, “the same as Sandwich.” The name caught on, and so did the portable, inexpensive meal between slices of bread.
With the growth of industrial society in the 19th century, the sandwich became very popular in many places around the world. It was one of the few things associated with the 4th Earl of Sandwich that worked out well.
To his credit, as First Lord of the Admiralty Montagu funded a couple of Captain James Cook’s expeditions. Cook made the politically expedient gesture of naming one of his discoveries the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii).
Most of Montagu’s other decisions about British naval deployment were not successful. For instance, his strategy during the American Revolution was to keep most of the British navy at home to fend off possible invasions, rather than sending ships to North America. That had to be helpful to the colonies, since their navy pretty much consisted of some retrofitted merchant ships and a couple of inner tubes. Meanwhile, critics accused Montagu of corruption: taking bribes and giving jobs to his cronies.
While Sandwich’s sandwich in 1762 may have been a roast beef, many varieties have developed since then, of course — and the origins of most of them are in dispute. The club sandwich, for example, is traced by some to the Saratoga Club in Saratoga Springs, New York. Other food historians associate it with club cars on railroad trains.
The hamburger’s name suggests it originated in Hamburg, Germany, but apparently that might not be so. Claimants include New Haven, Connecticut, Tulsa, Oklahoma… and Hamburg, New York.
The use of peanut butter didn’t become, uh, widespread until the 1920s, but is now among the most popular sandwich ingredients. According to the National Peanut Board’s website, “The average child will eat 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he/she graduates high school.”
Personally, I’m partial to corned beef on rye… although when it’s done right, grilled cheese is hard to beat. And then there’s thinly sliced turkey — Mmm. So what’s your next sandwich going to be?