Cookery, Lifestyle, Ludotheque

The sandwich: two hundred and fifty years of popularity

Doesn’t your mouth water just hearing its name? This month, the United Kingdom will be celebrating two and a half centuries since the creation of the sandwich.

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Yolaidy Martínez Ruíz


The town of Sandwich in Kent, close to to the English Channel, will be the centre of the celebrations for its gastronomic namesake on the 12th and 13th of May. The sandwich was supposedly invented there and has since crossed borders and become a favourite food in many countries around the world.

The festivities for the most popular food in the UK will be held during British Sandwich Week, a celebration from the 12th-19th May, with activities taking place up and down the country.

The programme offers  Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music concerts, competitions, talks, fêtes and tastings of different sandwich varieties, made as always, with two slices of bread filled with cheese, meats or vegetables and accompanied with sauces or other condiments.

For years, the sandwich has been the undisputed king of British lunches because it is a light meal, can be quickly prepared, and can be eaten without interrupting the working day.

According to official figures, the UK consumes more than 11 billion sandwiches a year, the majority of which are made at home, although there are many specialised establishments offering a huge variety of fillings. The sandwich industry has become one of the most important in the country, employing at least 330,000 people, with an annual turnover estimated at £6 billions.

The rise of the sandwich

There is evidence tracing the origin of this snack back to the 18th century when John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718 – 1792), a frequent card player would forgo his lunch break because of his devoted passion for his hobby.

It is said that one day, the English aristocrat asked for his meat between two slices of bread to allow him to lunch while carrying on with his endless card games and wagers.

The Earl made a habit of eating with only one hand and without getting his fingers dirty. His friends also began to ask for the same snack. Perhaps though, the strangest part of the story is that in his will, Montagu made it clear that his greatest legacy to the country was the creation of the sandwich.

The first recorded use of the word appeared on the 24th of November 1762 in the writings of the English historian Edward Gibbons, who was surprised to see two noblemen sat in The Cocoa Tree, a gentleman’s gaming club, eating sandwiches in the middle of a heated discussion about politics.

However, another version of the story dates the birth of the sandwich back to the 1st century B.C, only it is called another name and was invented by Hillel ‘The Elder’, a Jewish rabbi and teacher originally from ancient Babylon.

According to the story, at Passover, the religious leader began the tradition of taking two matzohs – hard biscuits baked with ground nuts – and filling them with some apple chunks, spices and wine with bitter herbs.

This variation is the first written record of a ‘sandwich’, but without a doubt, Earl Montagu was the one who popularised it.

Types and varieties of sandwich

The speciality food arrived in the American continent with the British writer Elizabeth Leslie, who included a recipe in her cookbook for a ham sandwich and suggested it as the first course for either afternoon tea or dinner.

Since then, a huge number of varieties have been created, varying in form and name, depending on where they are sold.

Among the most popular is ‘the pastrami sandwich’, very famous in New York, and of Jewish origin,  consisting of smoked beef seasoned with spices.

Another well-known variety is ‘the Club (or Clubhouse) sandwich’, which requires three slices of toasted bread for its preparation and is presented cut up into four portions. Among its key ingredients are bacon, turkey, cheese, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise. It is usually accompanied with fries, and these days this type of sandwich can be found in any part of the world.

Another famous variation is ‘the finger sandwich’, typical of Argentinian cuisine (known there as el sándwich de pan de miga) and made with two pieces of crustless, sliced white bread, cut into rectangles.

Among these and other nicknames such as sanduches, pepitos, carlitos or butifarras (in Spanish alone) and even in its sweeter form, with cookie or ice cream sandwiches, this snack enjoys global fame and will continue sating the human appetite for many more years to come.  (PL)

(Translated by Daniela Feta) Photos: Pixabay

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