You might’ve heard the half-remembered tidbit about the sandwich having been invented by a historic figure called, fittingly enough, the Earl of Sandwich. Beyond the amusing (and perhaps faintly imperialist) notion of a Georgian nobleman ‘inventing’ such a seemingly timeless culinary concept and naming it after himself, the story tends to be short on detail.
American readers might be familiar with the Earl of Sandwich as a popular restaurant franchise, suggesting a marketing creation akin to the entirely fictitious Burger King. But the Earl of Sandwich was, and continues to be, a very real man. Indeed, the incumbent owner of the title, the 11th Earl of Sandwich, is listed as one of the founders of the aforementioned American restaurant franchise.
Here’s the story of the Earl of Sandwich, the man who lent his name to an iconic food.
Handheld gambling fuel
It’s good to see that the eponymous Sandwich clan are still involved in the sarnie game 260 years after their bready legacy was supposedly established. John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was an esteemed statesman who held various military and political offices in the second half of the 18th century, including Postmaster General, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Secretary of State for the Northern Department. But, for all his undoubtedly impressive professional achievements, his purported standing as the inventor of the sandwich surely stands apart as the Earl’s greatest legacy.
The story goes like so: the 4th Earl was a keen gambler who often engaged in marathon sessions at the gaming table. One night, during an especially long sitting, he became so engrossed that he couldn’t bear to drag himself away to eat; his servant would have to bring food to him. But the gambling table was no place for refined Georgian table settings – Sandwich sought quick handheld sustenance that wouldn’t distract him from the action.
In that moment the Earl of Sandwich had a brainwave and called on his servant to bring him two slices of bread with a slice of beef in between. It was a solution that would allow him to eat with one hand while holding his cards with the other. The game could continue with barely a stoppage and the cards would remain pleasingly untainted by grease.
The Earl’s innovative handheld dining solution would almost certainly have been regarded as a bracingly gauche display in Georgian high society, but his gambling buddies were apparently impressed enough to follow his lead and request “the same as Sandwich”.
A culinary phenomenon is born
Whether or not this version of the sandwich origin story is apocryphal, it’s hard to refute the fact that the sandwich was named after the 4th Earl. Indeed, it seems that the name caught on quickly. The French writer Pierre-Jean Grosley noted an emergent trend in his 1772 book A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants:
“A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat (sic) without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister, who invented it.”
A decade earlier, in 1762 – the same year that Sandwich is said to have made his culinary breakthrough – the historian Edward Gibbon described a rapidly burgeoning gastronomic phenomenon in his diary: “Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”
What is a sandwich?
It seems safe to say that the 4th Earl of Sandwich popularised the finger food item that bears his name, but that isn’t necessarily the same as inventing it. A specific modern understanding of the sandwich could be said to have originated in the 18th century, tallying with the Earl of Sandwich’s purported standing as its inventor, but a looser definition of the sandwich can be traced back far further.
Flatbreads were used to wrap other foodstuffs in numerous ancient cultures, while ‘trenchers’ – thick slabs of coarse, typically stale bread – were used as plates in medieval Europe. A particularly close precursor to the sandwich, as it was popularised by gambling English aristocrats, is described by the naturalist John Ray during a visit to the Netherlands in the 17th century. He observed beef hanging from the rafters of taverns “which they cut into thin slices and eat with bread and butter laying the slices upon the butter”.
Ultimately, it seems churlish to deny the Earl of Sandwich his celebrated invention by introducing other configurations of bread-based finger food. Surely sandwiches are distinct from flatbread wraps or a single slice of bread used as a vehicle for meats (what later became known as the open-faced sandwich), if only by virtue of a second bread slice that encloses the filling.
Whoever invented the sandwich, it emerged as a hugely popular food product in the 19th century. As cities across Europe became increasingly industrialised, the demand for portable, cheap, quick-to-consume handheld food took off. A few decades after a wealthy Earl devised it as a means to sustain oneself without disturbing a finely balanced game of cribbage, the sandwich became a staple meal for a workforce that no longer had time to sit and eat.