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Food 101

The history of food

More than 230 years ago, John Montagu, The Fourth Earl of Sandwich, ordered slices of meat and cheese wedged between two toasted pieces of bread. Historical accounts of the times are sketchy, but his concoction was likely garnished by horseradish or mustard, two popular condiments of the day.

People ate meat and bread together, but a civilized person would never dream of combining the two. Lucky for us, Sir Montagu was somewhat rough around the edges.

The former Lord of the Admiralty was known to be a compulsive gambler, roaming all over London in search of games of dice and cards. He also had a reputation for being coarse and vulgar, most likely the result of spending most of his life at sea in the service of King George III – the ‘mad King’ who both sparked and lost the American War of Independence.

Lord Montagu also consorted with known pirates and privateers, characters who had little to offer in the way of social graces and table manners. It’s hardly surprising that the fourth Earl of Sandwich would choose to eat with his hands – or hand, because his other mitt would always be holding dice or a set of cards.

The Earl was known in pubs all over London, and after a while his unusual food order became known simply as a "sandwich."

The sandwich was likely looked down on as lower class fare, something for coal miners and chimney sweeps to nibble on at tea time, and for the barman to serve at the pub.

The sandwich didn’t receive any official recognition until 1827, 35 years after the Earl’s death, when Elizabeth Leslie included a recipe for ham sandwiches in a cookbook.

Even so, the bread was still too hard for many to chew. It wasn’t until soft white bread was introduced in the early 1900s that the sandwich really took off as a meal.

From smokey gambling parlours to lunch boxes around the world, the evolution of the sandwich is as much a story of social and cultural history as it is of the history of food. Not only does the sandwich reflect the times, in a way it also helped to shape it.

For example, sandwiches were simple, filling and affordable to all. They were also portable, and could be taken to work, school, almost anywhere. The workers who built the Titanic and the men who rivetted the beams of the Empire State Building ate sandwiches for lunch. The unions that emerged to represent those workers demanded real lunch breaks to give those workers more time to eat and digest their sandwiches. And with a nourishing meal during the day, workers could work harder later into the day.

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