The sandwich has a long and interesting history. A Rabbi during the first century B.C., Hillel, the Elder, is credited with the first recorded mention of this food. The simple meal was made with two pieces of matzah and filled with fruit, nuts, wine and herbs. It is part of the early tradition of Passover and the Seder.
From the dark ages until the Renaissance, bread was used to sop up juices from meat. Food got from the table to the diner’s mouth without soaking hands and clothing with gravy. Thick slices of bread, called trenchers, were used as plates.
The fork surfaced in the Middle East about 1070 and had only two large tines. Food slipped between the spaces. The early utensil wasn’t in wide use. It evolved, surfacing in Italy, moved to France and slowly spread throughout Europe.
By the late 1600s, it was deemed bad manners to lift food with your fingers, at least among wealthy groups. In the 1800’s, multi-tined forks were developed in England and Germany and introduced to America. The sandwich faded from view, especially amongst the aristocracy.
John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, lived in England. He is commonly remembered as the inventor of what we know as the sandwich. Historians say he revived interest in the sandwich, which predated him. He was a notorious gambler and well traveled.
During the mid 1700’s, he travelled to Mediterranean countries such as Greece and to Australia, Polynesia and Hawaii. People of those times ate grilled pita breads stuffed with various staples. Some say he remembered this and modeled the sandwich after this early finger food. Common folklore says he told his cook to make him a convenient chow to sustain him during a long night of cards. He was given a slice of beef between two slabs of bread. It must have been a dry snack. The year was 1762. Supposedly, other gamblers cried out, “I want what Sandwich had”.
The cuisine didn’t become immediately common in the USA. Americans weren’t going to copy British grub. We distinguished our culture as uniquely our own, even the daily sustenance of life.
Elizabeth Leslie formally introduced the sandwich in a cookbook she wrote in 1840. It included a recipe for a ham sandwich proposing it to be a proper food to eat at the table. In the 1900’s, bakeries began to make thin sliced bread and a convenience food became part of our culture.
The most popular sandwich here is ham, whereas in England it was and is beef. There are regional variations of the sandwich around the world with preferences for fillings often related to availability, taste and familiarity.
In Ireland, I was surprised to find a salad sandwich. It is simply lettuce and tomato with maybe sharp cheddar, sliced carrot, cucumber, boiled halved egg, and/or apple that is spiced up with a bit of dressing like mustard, chutney or mayonnaise. Sandwiches in Spain typically have only meat, tuna, chorizo, cheese or omelet between two slices of bread, with no lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, onions or pickles. A little oil may be rubbed on one side of the bread.
Nowadays Americans enjoy pita pockets, extra thin low calorie bread and frozen sandwiches to tote to lunch or keep on hand at home. There are gourmet and specialty sandwiches, half sandwich and soup or salad specials and sandwiches named after famous people.
Though I love some of the fancied up kinds, my favorite has to be the old fashioned grilled cheese with tomato on sourdough, with plain old fried egg being a close second. Something’s don’t change much. However, the sandwich sure has come a long way from its basic, utilitarian origins.