Long before the 4th Earl of Sandwich named the snack we know and love today, the sandwich was very popular. In fact the first ever recorded sandwich was made famous by Rabbi Hillel the elder during the 1st century B.C. Hillel the Elder. Rabbi Hillel is credited with beginning the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices and wine between two matzohs (unleavened bread) to eat with bitter herbs. It became known as the Hillel Sandwich because the Rabbi was the first known person to do this and because of his influence and statue in Palestine’s Judaism.
Before the invention of the fork, any object that lifted food and sauces from the plate to the mouth were considered necessary utensils. Bread was an integral part of the table setting and thick stale pieces called trenchers were used instead of plates. These trenchers were piled high with meat and other foods and absorbed the juice, sauces and grease. At the end of the meal, the trencher was either eaten or tossed to the dogs. The word trenchers came from the French verb trenchier which means to cut. The invention of the fork indicated that using your fingers to lift food was bad manners.
John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich revived the use of bread as a utensil and so giving us the name used today. So what was it called before then? Well each meal was named after the food used – for example, bread and cheese or bread and meat.
Montagu was the first Lord of the Admiralty to Captain Cook. Cook held Montagu in very high regard, naming the Hawaiian Island after him calling them Sandwich Islands.
Legend tells that Montagu was addicted to gambling; so much so, that he gambled for hours at the restaurant London’s Beef Steak Club and refused to stop for meals. The legend continues that he instructed his valet to bring him meat tucked between two slices of bread allowing him to continue and not leave the table. Other gamblers saw what was happening and would call to their own valets, ‘The same as Sandwich’. Although the original sandwich was no more than a piece of salt meat between two slices of bread, the name has stayed to this day.
While France and Italy stayed true to the free-form bread, Britain quickly adapted to making bread in tins. This insured uniformity and the slices were cut evenly. British bread made in tins also made the crust softer and more absorbent of spreads or juices. The sandwich became nicknamed as the ‘sarnie’ in some areas and further north in Yorkshire; they were referred to as ‘butties’ as in ‘jam butty’, ‘chip butty’ or ‘ham butty’.
Elizabeth Leslie is said to have introduced the sandwich to America in 1840 in her recipe book called Directions of Cookery. In it, she recommended a ham sandwich as a main dish. The Americans jumped at the ease of making a sandwich and bakeries began to sell sliced bread.
Being adventurous human beings, the sandwich as developed into both a quick and easy meal and some would say even an art form. Today it can be toasted or plain, piled high, or with only with one ingredient. It can be called a ‘submarine’, a ‘club’, a ‘finger’ or a ‘Sloppy Joe’ or just simply a sandwich. Any bread can be used and any ingredient put inside, but the end result is usually tasty. What’s your favourite?