Speakeasy to Snack: Brief History of the Sandwich

It’s late at night. You’re hungry.

But you know what to do. There’s only one choice.

For there’s nothing in the cupboards save some bread and an assortment of leftover junk food, undeserving of the label ‘ingredients’. You lay out two slices of bread and load them up with the spare offcuts lingering in your lonely refrigerator; some furry feta, a crusty quarter of onion and one sad, final slice of salami. Yes. That’s right. You just made yourself a sandwich.

It hurts to admit that this incarnation of the beloved staple is so present in the millennial diet. Ah but how noble the simple sarnie can be! Think of the creation which took centre-stage in your school lunch-boxes! Think of the pompous sandwich that lives in the picnic hamper, or the pale, petit cucumber sandwich of afternoon teas, or even of the comforting no-nonsense of the Boots Meal Deal sandwich! How many forms this foodstuff takes! And so, in a bid to return some face to our beloved sandwich, to bestow the proper respects to this all-time favourite, we decided to trace its roots.

Think of the pompous sandwich that lives in the picnic hamper!

Before the sandwich was officially called “the sandwich” there existed thousands of years of sandwich-esque meals that involved the usage of bread in similar but not quite completely sandwich-y ways. The ancient Jewish rabbi, Hillel the Elder, was said to have taken a slice of lamb with bitter herbs and squished it between two pieces of unleavened bread (matzah). It would take humanity another thousand years until they got this close to making the sandwich as we know it, the kind with fluffy, delicious and, most importantly, leavened bread. In the meantime, circa Medieval Europe, people were using bread as an edible plate which they put the rest of their meal on. They called this a ‘trencher’. The poor would typically eat the trencher at the end of the meal, while nobles usually gave the trencher to their servants. Back in Medieval times that’s how you displayed your wealth and status; Eat my dirty plate, peasant! On the upside, I guess no one had to wash up…

Medieval-style 'Trencher' (copyright not owned by us)
Matzah bread

The sandwich as we know it – name and all – only emerged in the 18th century. The story of its invention goes like this: John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich was a gambling addict and couldn’t get up from his poker game, so one day he ordered his valet to bring him some meat between two slices of bread. He could hold his food in one hand and keep playing his game with the other. Everyone in the room was like, “I’ll have what he’s having!” and next thing you know food squished between bread came to be called a sandwich. Interestingly, on that fateful day John Montagu also altered the course of the English language. Once the sandwich was invented, soon after, the verb “to sandwich” – i.e. put something between two other things – came into existence as well.


Already it’s clear that this culinary invention was transcending countries, ethnicities and cultures. Something which only became plainer as the sandwich entered with the rest of us into the 20th century. There are hints which suggest the sandwich had already spread to America, but it was the prohibition era which really made the thing take off. Speakeasies, in a cunning bid to maximise profit and shield their location from detection, started serving food. The secret saloons provided patrons with small portions all night, which got them not only to spend more money on booze, but also prevented them from leaving utterly plastered and getting caught by policemen.

Earl of Sandwich (obvs)

Finger sandwiches came into the spotlight. They soaked up alcohol in bellies, and they were so dainty you could hold your sandwich in one hand and drink in another, allowing you to move around the room schmoozing without having to sit down and chomp. (This, by the way, is also how canapés became so popular.) Soon people were hosting boozy parties in the sanctity of their homes and chefs of the day were only too happy to assist you in preparing for your illegal soiree. If in doubt on how to make a suitable sandwich, do refer to Fannie Merritt Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, published in 1918, which has a whole section on “Sandwiches and Canapés”.


The sandwich continued to rip roar through America. Sarnies sprung up everywhere, each one indigenous to a different part of the States. The ‘Hoagie’ belongs to Philadelphia, as does the ‘Submarine’ or ‘Sub’. The club sandwich is a New York thing. The Reuben sandwich is Nebraska, or New York again depending on who’s side you’re on.

Companies have used sandwiches to promote their products; in 1958 Hellmann’s Mayonnaise advertised their sauce as “traditional” on BLT’s. Good Housekeeping  “urged” homemakers to grind peanuts and spread the result on bread, creating peanut butter and eventually, P B & J.

Delicious little bite-size canapés
The famous P B & J

In short? Takeover. Back in the UK we have our own variations now, just think of all those Christmas sandwiches with cranberry sauce. Of course sometimes, it seems that anything can qualify as a sandwich these days… But that’s just where you’re wrong! Numerous court cases (yes, proper legal cases) have debated what falls into the official remit of the ‘sandwich’, and in 2006 a court in Boston, Massachusetts ruled that a sandwich includes at least two slices of bread and found that “the term ‘sandwich’ is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos and quesadillas.”


Ahhhh, what a rich story the sandwich has, I hear you sigh. What a paragon of versatility! It commands courtrooms, it stars in cookbooks and it sparks lively debate! Thankfully, we can rest easy that the sandwich is being properly honoured and protected. For there is a British Sandwich & Food To Go Association… and they even have awards, The Sammies, which heralds themselves as “the industry’s single greatest award ceremony” (presumably the industry’s only award ceremony too…) The Association’s website declares it’s aims are to “safeguard the integrity of the sandwich industry”, “promote excellence and innovation” and “promote the consumptions of sandwiches”.


Really this revered approach is worth remembering when you’re creeping about your kitchen, trying the throw something together. But even there, late at night, the sandwich shows itself to be a testament to human ingenuity and creativity. Even when all you’ve got is bread, hot sauce and an old teabag.

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