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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.

The sandwich has diversified. It has branched out to become the submarine, the Hoagie, the French Dip, the open-faced club, the melt, the hamburger, the hotdog, the cream-filled cookie. The sandwich also heralded the invention of the electric toaster, peanut butter, the lunch box, resealable plastic bags, and so on and so forth.

Egg sandwiches built the railroads. Cucumber sandwiches are now a traditional offering by the British Royalty. Sandwiches have also contributed to regicide – a love for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches contributed to Elvis Presley’s death.

The sandwich is just one example of a food that has become woven into the fabric of history.

Pasta was invented by the Roman Empire to feed the population of Rome. So were the modern Roman highways.

Pretzels were invented by an Italian Monk to reward children for learning their prayers. M&M candies were designed for American GIs – the coating was to prevent the chocolate from melting while in the field.

Our very evolution from a primitive species of hunters and gatherers is centred around food, from the first agriculture to the domestication of species. Having a ready source of food at hand allowed us the luxury of time to invent alphabets and devices. Wheels were probably invented to grind wheat into flour long before they were used to transport goods.

What foods were added to humanity’s larder and when is as important to understanding our history as all the stonework, tapestries and parchments uncovered over the years.

A number of books have discussed the food phenomena in detail – e.g. The Oxford Companion to Food, The Cambridge World History of Food, The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, Food in History (Tannahill), and the History of Food (Toussaint-Samat).

The Morris County Library of New Jersey has done the world a favour in disseminating these books into an easily digestible food timeline.

Salt and rice top the timeline, and can’t easily be dated. It seems like they were always around.

Emmer Grain was the first grain harvested, dating back to 17,000 B.C. Einkorn grain was gathered a thousand years later, however it wasn’t until 10,000 BC that man started making grain into bread. The earliest mill stone discovered is over 7,500 years old.

"Bread," according to the Russian proverb, "is life" – the world’s first agricultural staple. According to Botham’s Educational Pages ( , "The ability to sow and reap cereals may be one of the chief causes which led man to dwell in communities, rather than to live a wandering life hunting…"

In Egypt, bread was a weight, measure and currency. It’s so important that in some countries, such as Turkey, bread is still a tightly regulated product with each loaf having to conform to a rigid set of guidelines in terms of size, weight, and freshness.

Sheep and goats were domesticated in 9,000 BC, with the former producing wool and the latter producing milk.

Lentils hit the scene around 8,000 BC and were popular because they could be dried and restored with water. With rice, ancient civilizations could store both carbohydrates and proteins to survive drought, winter and war. They could also be traded.

Pork and beans, that magical combination, hit earthenware bowls in about 7,000 BC. Bean-bearing plants are some of the oldest domesticated plants in existence, likely starting with the fava bean in Asia, the black-eyed pea in Africa, and Lima beans in the new world. Domesticating wild pigs probably wasn’t easy, but the effort helped our ancestors to bring home the bacon.

Walnuts also surfaced at around this time.

Cattle were domesticated about 500 years later, which opened the doors for cheese 500 years after that, around the same time maize (corn), dates, broccoli and spelt surfaced.

Our sweet teeth didn’t get their first taste of sweetness until around 5,500 BC with the domestication of bees for honey and the harvest of sugar cane.

Over the next 5,000 years humanity added chickpeas, chilies, olive oil, squash, pumpkins, and taro to the shopping list.

4,000 BC was an important time – the cultivation of the grapes. Good for raisins and vinegar but great for wine, grapes are one of the most important foods in our history. Few foods have had the economic and social impact of grape alcohol. Oranges and watermelons also appeared around this time.

Although it would be 5,500 years before motion pictures, the first popcorn appeared in South America in 3,600 BC, although it was probably used for longer than that.

The chicken was domesticated around 3,200 BC in India. Funny enough, the primary goal was to breed them for cockfighting, not to eat or domesticate for egg production.

A number of new foodstuffs were added at this time, including barley, peas, carrots, onions, apples, figs and spices. The pursuit of exotic spices, which Western Europe needed to disguise the taste of meat going off without refrigeration, led to the discovery of the New World.

Tea, which was allegedly discovered by a Chinese emperor in 2,737 BC when some leaves blew into some boiling water, went on to become one of the most important trade commodities. On the 100-day silk road journey that joined Asia to Europe, tea was as important as silk and spices.

The desire to own tea plantations was high among the considerations that led to the widespread European colonization of India and Asia.

The British tax on tea led to the Boston Tea Party and paved the way for the American Revolution.

Rhubarb, mushrooms, potatoes, muskmelon and radishes appeared before 2,000 BC.

Pickles also appeared around this time, as pickling allowed for the long preservation of cucumbers and other vegetables. Christopher Columbus himself brought pickles with him on his voyage to find the Eastern Passage to India, and planted some cucumbers on the island of Haiti. Amerigo Vespucci, the Spanish trader that the Americas were later named after, was a pickle peddler in Seville.

Virtually every house and farm in colonial North America planted a pickle patch to help them make it through the boring, bland winter months and their endless racks of flavourless preserves.

Marshmallows also emerged around 2,000 BC as mash mallow reed pulp was boiled with sugar until it thickened into candy. Marshmallows were reserved for royalty.

By the first century AD, humanity also had peanuts, chocolate, tomatillos, celery, cabbage, sausage, artichokes, pasta, beets, bananas, Chinese noodles, asparagus, quinces, mustardy, flan, cheesecake, wedding cake, French toast, capers, turnips, kale and ice cream. Sushi dates back to the second century, China, as a means for preserving salted fish. It didn’t make it to Japan until around the seventh century.

Every food has a history, a story, and a contribution to our society. To read more about it, grab a sandwich and check out the Morris County Library Web site at