Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Bee Wilson’s Sandwich


Unanswered question: Was John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich really the inventor of the sandwich in the mid-18th century, or does history tell us some earlier origin story about this globally popular food? Author Bee Wilson, in her book titled Sandwich: A Global History, has researched the subject and finds “a frustrating lack of evidence for sandwiches before 1762.” She found a number of references to combinations of bread and meat or bread and cheese etc. but not any clear reference to a food item placed between two pieces of bread. 

“Many people must have combined cheese and bread into a ‘sandwich’. Others, however, may have chosen to spear their cheese on their knife and eat it that way, or placed the cheese on a single piece of bread without adding a top layer, or munched on alternate chunks of bread and cheese.”

What does Wilson find distinctive about the Earl's choice of two slices of bread with roast beef between?

“The answer, I would propose, is that what was new about John Montagu’s sandwich – and we cannot entirely discount Grosley’s reference to it as a ‘new dish’ in 1765/1770 – was not the fact that he ate it but the fact that he called for it ready-made. Countless anonymous others must have constructed their own sandwiches from a plate of bread and meat over the thousands of years that bread and meat were eaten. But only aristocratic Montagu – too busy to leave his desk – asked for the bread and meat to be assembled in advance on his behalf, so that he would not have to stop work for even a moment. It was not the eating that was novel but the ordering. This would explain, too, how it took on his name.”

Fun with history 

The makings of a sandwich from the 17th century? (link)
Wilson covers a lot of prior sandwich-like preparations, including the nearly 2000-year-old "Hillel Sandwich" (two pieces of matzoh with horseradish and charoset between them) that's traditional at modern Passover Seders. She discusses various types of falafel sandwiches. And demonstrates that sandwich foods were included in Dutch Golden Age still-life paintings such as the one shown here: "a pink and white cooked ham on a white tablecloth with a crusty roll and some mustard." There are a wide variety of other hints that sandwiches could have preceded the Earl's famous request, but none quite qualifies as a sandwich until the eponymous creation for the work-obsessed Earl of Sandwich. 

Once she's done with the precursors, Wilson offers many examples of sandwiches throughout the centuries and throughout the world. She cites cookbooks from the 19th and early 20th century. In early days, upperclass British sandwiches were very thin and delicate, she explains, while the lower classes ate huge ungainly but nutritious combinations on thick slices of bread. She describes club sandwiches, Reuben sandwiches, hero sandwiches, Philly cheese steak sandwiches, and many many more, and mentions how each one is the subject of conflicting claims about who invented them! In contrast, she gives examples like Dagwood sandwiches and Elvis sandwiches of which the origins are totally clear.

Our Local Sandwich Maker

These days, of course, the sandwich often consists of a huge, thick and sometimes overwhelming tower of meat between the two (or more) bread slices. I'm thinking of our famous local sandwich shop Zingerman's (not mentioned in the book). For around $20 you get massive quantities of deli meat, cheese, condiments, and a pickle.

From Zingerman's menu: Pastrami & yellow mustard on double-baked, hand-sliced Jewish Rye bread.

A Few More Sandwiches

But I digress from Bee Wilson's book. So many examples… here’s an interestingg one: 

“Like all great sandwiches, Bánh mì … has immaculate balance: the sour freshness of the vegetables and herbs offset the richness of the pork. Any suspicion of dryness is warded off by the pâté. It is a true global concoction, illustrating how a sandwich may be assembled from many disparate cultures and countries yet retain its own delicious integrity.

This Vietnamese sandwich as you probably know is the result of colonialism in Vietnam. The French baguette came to Vietnam when it was a French colony, and the traditional fillings of pâté, pork, pickles, and butter or mayo, which are also introduced Western ingredients. The result is completely distinctive and characteristic of Vietnamese traditions, which were brought to the US by immigrants after the Vietnam War.

I liked Wilson’s diescussion about breakfast sandwiches:

“Bonnie and Clyde bought sandwiches for breakfast on the very morning that they were finally apprehended and shot by the police, opinion differs as to whether their final sandwich, bought from Ma Canfield’s café in Gibsland, Louisiana, was a fried bologna or a BLT. But the remains of Bonnie’s sandwich was still on her lap when she was killed, wrapped neatly in a paper napkin.It’s worth noting that Bonnie and Clyde saw sandwiches as a breakfast food. In Britain the choice of breakfast sandwiches is essentially limited to the ‘greasy spoon’ bacon or sausage sarnie (though some cafes do now do Panini filled with an all-day British breakfast of egg and bacon). In America, however, breakfast sandwiches are plenteous and various.”

Many types of American breakfast sandwiches are mentioned, including the Egg McMuffin of course. While Sandwich is a rather short book, it’s packed with lots of examples, names of sandwich-centered cookbooks from many eras, and lots of historical detail — or maybe trivia. And it ends with a list describing 50 sandwiches which all (or mostly) sound very delicious: the best thing is you don’t need a recipe for a sandwich,  just a description. I’m afraid though that she missed the great Israeli sandwich called the Sabich.


Lori said...

Great post.

Anne in the kitchen said...

Most likely I will not read the book, but find this post about it so very interesting.

Jeanie said...

I like a good sandwich -- but I find I often deconstruct them. I really love good bread -- but if it's too big or too thick I find myself eating the inside of the sandwich separately from the bread. I call it the Zingermann problem.

I love that you read food history. Are you familiar with Elisabeth Townsend's books, "Lobster" and her new one "Cod"? I haven't read them but I know her from my long-ago days and have read some of her other writing, which is usually very good.

My name is Erika. said...

I shouldn't have stopped by just now because that pastrami sandwich looks to die for. hugs-Erika

Jeanie said...

This sounds like a good one, Mae. I'm a fan of the sandwich but I'm picky. It seems now they are all too big! I call it the Zimmerman Problem -- wonderful ingredients on delicious bread that you can't get your mouth around -- so I usually deconstruct them. (I deconstruct just about every sandwich Rick makes, too -- the bread is too good and needs to be eaten separately!)

Have you read any of the food history by Elisabeth Townsend? She wrote "Lobster" and just recently "Cod." I haven't read them but I know her from my long-ago days when her husband was my first boss at WKAR. Just curious -- they seem like your thing!

Linda said...

Interesting. I don’t tolerate wheat, so my sandwiches are lettuce wraps. They are only good if the meat is top quality.

Iris Flavia said...

$20 for a sandwich??? And who can eat so much?
Bonnie died with a sandwich? That was not in the The Simpsons episode! LOL.
Oh, shoot. It´s on my Kindle!

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

More than I ever realized about sandwiches. I especially liked the story about Bonnie and Clyde.

My friend Scott and I got sandwiches on Saturday. Each was 12 inch with bread made in the shop. I got half honey wheat and half tomato olive. Each sandwich was as thick as yours and was $9.69 plus tax. Since I had my PBS card with me, I got them two for one!