John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, certainly contributed his title’s name to the popular snack of two pieces of bread holding some type of filling. In 1762, Montagu, a notoriously avid gambler, realised that the type of food he’d seen in his Middle and Near Eastern travels would allow him to sate his appetite while remaining at cards.
However, the snack itself dates back to the first-century B.C. Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, who placed lamb and bitter herbs between pieces of matzo bread during Passover; the Romans called this concoction Cibus Hilleli, or “Hillel’s snack.” Other cultures, including Middle and Near Eastern, made sandwiches long before they caught on in the West, and in Europe it seems the Dutch belegde broodje (“filled roll”) was popular a century before the Earl of Sandwich ever saw a cribbage board.
It took a while for sandwiches to progress from late-night men’s fare to general society snack, but by the end of the 19th century sandwiches had become so accepted that they even appeared in the 1887 White House Cookbook. As sandwiches grew in popularity, they also grew in variety: From the ubiquitous ham sandwich to BLTs, the Americans in particular found many ways to put meals between pieces of bread.
From their British forebears Americans also took the concept of “sandwich bread,” also known as the Pullman loaf, that was shaped in a convenient rectangle and had a firmly packed crumb so that sandwich eaters would not lose most of their bread in their laps while eating.
Today sandwiches are made for and eaten at every meal. While many sandwiches are made at home the market for custom and prepackaged sandwiches seems insatiable. Sandwiches like Vietnamese banh mi and Scandinavian smorrebrod are available everywhere in the world, proving that one man’s snack has become the world’s favourite.