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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.

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