A Toast to Sandwiches


A Toast to Sandwiches

Who doesn't like a good sandwich? Quick, refreshing, and so very versatile, the sandwich is a pillar of western cuisine.

Years ago, I'd heard anecdotally that the name "sandwich" came from the eating habits of an English noble: John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. Turns out that it's probably true. Today I learn. Whether it was because he was a hardworking statesman or a voracious card player is up for discussion, but regardless of the circumstances, John Montagu was so committed to his activities that the thought of pausing for a meal was inconceivable. Instead, he would order some salt beef stuffed between two slices of bread (no need for utensils or flatware), and thus the sandwich was born. Or was it?

Using bread to replace plates or utensils was not unique to our favourite Earl. During the Middle Ages for example, folks would often eat off of trenchers; stale slices of bread which could serve as plates. A quick perusal of the wiki on trenchers informs one (with citations even!) that trenchers are even referred to in Virgil’s Aeneid. But it can’t be an idea limited to the traditional West either, because there are numerous cultures which eat a meal using bread either as a receptacle or utensil (naan for example). Sandwiches, whatever their name, have probably been with us as long as we’ve had bread. And the lines can get kind of blurry if we’re even going to try and define precisely what a sandwich is.

The flexibility and convenience of the sandwich is definitely one of the reasons we eat so many of them today. Perhaps at lunch, you, like the Earl, don’t even taking a break from the hurly burly of the job, but instead wolf down a few juicy slices of porchetta from a local shop, as the crumbs tumble and sneak into the crevices of your keyboard. As a student, if I was scrambling for time, a pile of PB&Js hastily crammed into my backpack would be enough sustenance for a day of studying. And if it was good bread, it was even relatively healthy.

Connected to the sandwich’s versatility is also its potential for simplicity. Dagwood would go all out with his skyscraper-imitating creations (and who doesn’t enjoy making an extravagant sandwich now and then?), but most of the time a sandwich is kept down to a short list of practical ingredients which are readily on hand (e.g. the aforementioned PB&J). My grandfather, who was a welder that worked out in the field, apparently ate the same rye bread and liversausage sandwich for the entire duration of his working life. Wrapped in wax paper and stuffed in a lunch pail, they could survive any weather Alberta would throw at him, and still taste delicious come lunch time. In Florence last year I had the opportunity to try a regional specialty called lampredotto: boiled beef tripe topped with chilis and stuffed into a ciabatta. As I queued for the sandwich, it was hardly surprising that nearly everyone else there was working class. Quick, filling, and affordable was the name of the game.

But sandwiches are not all economy and efficiency. As may of us can attest, you can spend an unreasonable amount of money on a good sandwich. And sandwiches needn’t be quick either. Brotzeit is the traditional evening meal in southern Germany, and though largely made up of open faced varieties, is generally a relaxed and fairly long affair, marking an intentional slowing down at the end of the day. In the end, sandwiches are not really any one thing, but a myriad of options reflecting the needs of the moment. So here’s to sandwiches in all their forms! And as I finish this post, feeling a might peckish, I think it might be time for another sandwich. That day old baguette should toast up nicely…

Joel StreckerComment