Skip to main content

The Sandwich: Convenience Food for More Than Two Centuries

Image result for earl of sandwich
John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich





The sandwich seems like such an obvious invention that it’s surprising that someone didn’t think of it before the late 18th century.  That’s when the concept first appeared.  It’s so recent that the word in most foreign languages is an obvious loanword from English.  The loan is obvious in the French le sandwich and in the German das Sandwich, and the Russian сэндвич and the Turkish sandviç show that the word has spread even farther afield.  It’s the same word in Tagalog, Javanese and Swahili!  But where, exactly, does this word come from?

The origin traces to John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.  Exactly how the name got attached to one of the world’s most widely-circulated convenience foods is disputed.  One popular story holds that Montagu was a hardcore gambler, and didn’t like to take time out from card playing for meals.  Instead, he would ask a servant to bring him some salt beef between two slices of toasted bread.  Others, seeing this, would say, “I’ll have the same as Sandwich!” and thus the word was coined.  Sandwich’s biographer, N. A. M. Rodger, suggests a greater dose of virtue in the origin of the concept.  The Fourth Earl, Rodger holds, was so committed to his work in politics, the arts, and the Royal Navy, that he seldom left his work, opting to eat this convenience food at his desk.

Montagu might have given his name to this dish, but the concept predates him.  Before he came along, this was known by the more prosaic name “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese”.  Combining bread with meat, cheese or fish is an ancient idea, though it was more commonly done with unleavened bread—what is better known as a wrap today.

The Fourth Earl of Sandwich also gave his name to geography.  Since he was a great benefactor of Captain Cook, Cook named an archipelago after him: the Sandwich Islands.  This name eventually fell out of use as people started to favor the islands’ current name: the Hawaiian Islands.  However, Montagu is not forgotten.  Named in his honor we still have Sandwich Island in Australia, Montague Island in the Gulf of Alaska, and the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic (a British possession).  Despite these geographic honors, nothing tops his eponymous foodstuff, of which millions are consumed worldwide every day.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Halley's Comet Panic of 1910

If you were around in 1986, you might remember the excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet.  Halley’s Comet hadn’t been seen since 1910, and 76 years later, it was getting ready to make another pass by Earth.  Many who were excited probably wound up feeling a little disappointed. I’ll admit I was. I was sixteen, and was eager to see a bright ball in the sky with a burning tail lighting up the night.  All we got to see was a small, faint, comet-shaped light in the sky. It turned out that in 1986, the comet passed when the Earth was on the other side of the sun, so there wasn’t much to look at. We knew it was coming, though.  We’ve known this since 1705, when Edmond Halley predicted the comet would return on Christmas night, 1758.  Halley died in 1742, so he never got to see that he was correct—but he was correct. Halley’s calculations show that the comet will pass by Earth every 74 to 79 years, and these passes are predictable. When Halley’s Comet isn’t near Earth, …

43-Man Squamish: An Innovation in Athletics

For some people, one of the most tantalizing challenges is being told, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t do something.  In 1965, MAD magazine writer Tom Koch laid down one such challenge.  He wrote an article laying out the rules of a sport he invented called 43-man squamish.  The article was illustrated by artist George Woodbridge, and judging by the mail MAD received from its readers, it was a huge hit.  Of course, Koch didn’t really intend the article to be a challenge.  His idea was to invent a sport that was complex, convoluted, absurd, and ultimately unplayable.  It featured the kind of text readers of MAD, not athletes, would expect.  It’s an uncommon sport that has instructions like, “The offensive team, upon receiving the Pritz, receives five Snivels in which to advance to the enemy goal.  If they do it on the ground, it’s a Woomik and counts as 17 points.  If they hit it across with their Frullips it’s a Dermish which only counts points.  Only the offensive Niblings a…