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 Star-Spangled Banner: The Original Lyrics

If you’re an American (and quite possibly even if you’re not), you’ve certainly heard the tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” numerous times.  It’s a stirring melody, and can often sound very proud, and if someone asked you to hum a few bars, you probably could do a creditable job of it, even if you have no musical ability at all.  The tune is that familiar.  Of course, it has another name that you probably know better: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

But the song’s first name was “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The song asserts that Anacreon is in heaven, right from the first line.  Whether Anacreon actually is in heaven, I’ll take no position on, but he most certainly is dead.  Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived from circa 582 BCE to 485 BCE, which is a remarkably advanced age for the times.  Anacreon was celebrated for his songs about drinking and love and having a good time.  Maybe not the weightiest of literature, but even the most serious poets and thinkers need to take a break now and …

Alcock and Brown: The First Transatlantic Flight

Since his celebrated landing in Paris 90 years ago, we often hear of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  He flew solo, taking off from Roosevelt Field in Brooklyn and landing in Le Bourget field in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours in his cramped, lightweight plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.  Lindbergh was one of several individuals or teams who were competing for the Orteig Prize: a $25,000 purse offered to the first to fly from New York to Paris, offered by wealthy New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.  Lindbergh took off and landed perfectly, and managed to navigate the whole way without getting lost.  This was quite a feat in the days before computers to aid navigation, or the elaborate system of air traffic control that would come into being, once commercial airlines started to develop.  What Lindbergh did immediately made him an international hero and a household name for years after, with streets and buildings and yes, airports, named after him.  To this day, Charles …