The sandwich is an enormous part of American culture, but where did it come from? Any geography buff would tell you there is an island chain in the south Atlantic called the South Sandwich Archipelago, but why would anyone name it that? The chain of islands was named for the same man as the food, and both in the 1700s, although that’s where the similarities end.
The first written accounts of meat and bread date back to the second century BC, and ancient middle-eastern people ate them all the time. No one named the concoction until arguably 1762 when the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, needed something he could eat that wouldn’t interrupt his gambling. Edward Gibbon first wrote the word ‘sandwich’ in his journal as a culinary reference on November 24th of that year, but the first recipe using the word wasn’t published until 1773. The Americas were still colonial at that time, and would be, as far as the British were concerned, for another decade.
Americans didn’t widely start using the word until the 1830s. ‘Sandwich’ did, however, start appearing in cookbooks as early as 1816. The former colonists simply weren’t keen on calling anything by its British name so soon after the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. By 1924, however, the New York Times was calling for celebration of sandwiches as a convenient food, and heralding the arrival of the ‘sandwich house,’ a new type of lunch room primarily dedicated to sandwiches and their consumers. Many of the sandwiches from that era seem fairly unappetizing compared to the wonderful examples we have today, but some have survived. One of the earliest American sandwiches, the ham sandwich, is still served everywhere.
In the early days, many of the sandwiches offered by sandwich houses were vegetarian in nature. They used mostly vegetables and spreads, and the focal point was the bread. The meat centric sandwiches were essentially butter, or prepared mustard, with meat and bread. Thankfully, we’ve evolved the sandwich to an amazing array of breads, toppings, fillings and condiments.
Today, sandwich shops have a dizzying array of ingredients to choose from, like bacon and avocado, fresh vegetables, fruits, and nearly any meat you can name. Some of the most delicious sandwiches you can imagine have ingredients that you wouldn’t have considered even a decade ago. Literally anything can be put between two slices of bread and called a sandwich, but knowing which ingredients pair well together and how to bring out the best flavors and textures takes a special kind of skill.
Now we have hot sandwiches like paninis, cold sandwiches like banh mi, vegetarian sandwiches that make good use of cucumber and tomato, the always popular grilled cheese. We have sandwiches with Indian, southwest, Asian, Mediterranean, and a host of other flavors. All of these choices can make selection a little daunting.
So, what’s with the American love affair with sandwiches? Is it the convenience of a food that can be prepared and taken anywhere? Is it the incredible variety? Is it the unending potential for customization? Many like to think it’s all of the above, but when the average American adult eats over 200 sandwiches per year, one thing is certain: sandwiches are here to stay, and they just keep getting better.