Cynthia L. Nobles
So what’s your favorite sandwich?
Do you like the ease of slapping ham and cheese together between two slices of whole wheat? Or maybe it’s that sloppy but irresistible po-boy from the little dive down the road.
Do your children always ask for peanut butter and jelly? And who doesn’t like sitting in front of the TV with a salty BLT? (No matter what kind of diet you’re on, that one’s hard to resist.)
The sandwich is not only one of America’s favorite foods, but it’s the ultimate quick and portable meal. And we owe its popularity to a variety of historical characters.
Let’s start way back in 9000 BC, when folks in the Middle East started farming grains, which were pounded and baked into unleavened flatbreads that became edible plates. Unlike European loaf breads, the round flatbreads of the Middle East, Western Asia, northern Africa and India have for centuries been used to transport food to the mouth instead of a fork.
The first record of a sandwich appeared in the first century BC, and the sandwich was made by a Jewish rabbi named Hillel. Rabbi Hillel was observing Passover, and he sandwiched chopped nuts, apples, spices, wine and bitter herbs between two matzos, the hard unleavened bread eaten during Passover. Today, the Hillel sandwich is still a part of the Passover tradition.
There are a few historical references to European travelers and field workers in the Middle Ages who ate the easily carried meal. In France, for example, we know for sure that farm laborers ate meat and cheese between slices of black bread. But the sandwich at that time still didn’t have a name. It was simply known as “meat in bread” or “bread and cheese.”
Also during the Middle Ages, meals were piled on top of thick blocks of stale bread called trenchers. Trenchers soaked up food juices and were either eaten, or given to dogs or the poor.
Along those same lines, an open-faced sandwich was consumed in the 17th-century Netherlands, where naturalist John Ray wrote about taverns selling bread topped with butter and thin slices of beef.
The name “sandwich” didn’t appear in print until 1762, when English author Edward Gibbon recorded seeing a roomful of nobles at a coffeehouse eating “a bit of cold, meat, or a Sandwich.” The food term “sandwich” has been famously attributed to John Montague (1718-1792), the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, an Englishman who had spent time in Greece and Turkey, where locals ate stuffed pita bread.
Montague was a marathon gambler at London’s private Beef Steak Club and one night, in the heat of a card game, he ordered his valet to bring him two slices of toasted bread filled with salt meat. Soon, other card players started ordering “the same as Sandwich!” and the moniker stuck.
American cookbooks gave recipes for sandwiches as early as 1816. Initially, sandwiches appearing on U.S. tables were considered elaborate affairs, and served mostly at dinner. But over time, more convenient and less formal regional specialties were developed, including the cheesesteak, hoagie, muffaletta, po-boy, sloppy joe, submarine, the hamburger, the French dip, Reuben, hot dog and peanut butter sandwich. The sandwich exploded in popularity in America after 1928, when the Chillicothe Baking Co., of Chillocothe, Mo., started selling pre-sliced bread.
And it became somewhat of a gourmet item in the 1970s, when the use of different breads, such as pita, focaccia, baguettes, tortillas and croissants became chic.
The decade also saw the opening of a variety of restaurants devoted exclusively to sandwiches.
Not surprisingly, the most consumed sandwich in America is the ham sandwich. But researchers disagree on the No. 2 spot, going to either the peanut butter and jelly, which was created from the C-Rations of World War II soldiers, or the bacon, lettuce and tomato. Many of us, however, strongly feel that the best sandwiches are those made out of whatever happens to be in the refrigerator. So pull out the toaster and pass the mustard. Right now is a good time to build a new favorite.
Sources: http://www.pbs.org/food; http://www.thenibble.com; http://www.whatscookingamerica.net
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.