Call it the original fast food, predating crisps, burgers, fried chicken, pizza, the lot, the sandwich has been around for many centuries, but only gained its soubriquet from the 4th Earl of Sandwich – here quoted in the Wikipedia article:
The first written usage of the English word appeared in Edward Gibbon‘s journal, in longhand, referring to “bits of cold meat” as a “Sandwich”. It was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although he was neither the inventor nor sustainer of the food. It is said that he ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, and because Montagu also happened to be the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, others began to order “the same as Sandwich!” It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue playing cards, particularly cribbage, while eating without getting his cards greasy from eating meat with his bare hands.
Whatever the truth, the sandwich had the benefit of being relatively easy to eat and thus became the staple of lunches, picnics and all occasions where eating a ready snack on the move was essential. But it also became a cultural phenomenon that has changed and evolved wherever it has gone, according to the values of each society and the relative wealth therein.
For example, I was born in late 1959 at a time when Britain was emerging from post-war austerity, but when rationing and waste-not-want-not were still very fresh in the memory. A sandwich, also known as sarnie, butty and many other things, was not when I was young a razzamatazz multinational affair but plain, dull and tasteless. Ask for a cheese sandwich and you got two slices of awful white sandwich bread scraped with marge and with one slice of flavour-free imitation cheddar, or if you were unlucky, a triangle of Dairylea. You might just get a slice of tomato at a pinch, but no more – salad ingredients came in a bit later. I do remember once asking for a cheese and onion sandwich (before it ever occurred to me or anyone that onion breath was off-putting!) and getting to my horror the inedible core of the onion.
If it were meat you were after, it would probably be Spam or canned ham, but for a real treat it was occasionally possible to get a slice left over from a roast joint. More inventive choices were restricted to jam or bananas and sugar, though the best in my memory were always the breakfast fillings – bacon butties, sometimes with a fried egg!
Whichever filling, these were almost always home-made, and all too often the sandwiches you saw on sale in tea rooms, cafes and elsewhere were made hours since, looked stale and sweaty, and were usually curling at the corners. If there was a less appetising lunch, I could barely imagine it. The industry associated with sandwiches simply did not exist then, still less the concept of making the meal freshly, filled with exciting and varied ingredients, using top quality breads.
Contrast that with America, where a sandwich has for generations meant one of three things: what we would call a hamburger; a “sub“; or more particularly the deli sandwich, often sold in Jewish-owned diners and featuring sliced meat by the pound. Traditional fillings were many and varied, but pastrami or real corned beef (ie. salt beef, not from a can) with pickle and mustard on rye bread is a classic of the genre. And typically you would get about a pound and a half of sliced meat in the process – more associated with the American obsession with getting good bang-per-buck than the actual need to eat – all the more so since a large proportion of said sandwiches would end up in doggy bags and being carried home. For the record, deli sandwiches can in my humble opinion be about the best in the world, diets permitting (watch out for the instant heart attack!), but if there is any sort of sandwich I dislike with intensity it’s Subway, which presents itself as a quality product but isn’t – horrible bread and a number of nasty fillings.
More variations on the theme emerged from other countries: Scandianvia (which country is must in dispute) provided open sandwiches or Smörgåsbord (though the technical definition suggests a sandwich must have at least two slices of bread.) At some point middle-eastern breads and Mexican wraps entered the scene to provide further options. Toasted sarnies have been around for years, but Italy helped the toasted Panini into our vocabulary, along with breads like ciabatta and other fillings like breaded chicken escalopes (even now Italians are holding a festival to keep up the traditions of “grandmother’s sandwiches” – how fantastic is that?!)
By that point retailing had caught on to the huge potential of the humble sandwich, and the market had segmented such that you could get everything from the gourmet custom-made sandwich at wonderful shops like Philpotts (I used to frequent their Manchester shops when I worked in town), then quality chains like Eat and Pret a Manger, down to mass-produced factory made packaged sandwiches churned out by the million and flogged in supermarkets everywhere.
What I loved about the gourmet sandwich shops was that they challenged much of the orthodoxy of sandwich making. You could choose from many artisan breads, then specify any combination of ingredients you liked and they would be hand made for you. That was how the likes of brie, bacon and cranberry sauce originated, though the game has moved on since then into a wide range of high-quality fillings, salads and condiments, and frequently you can find unique and occasionally esoteric combinations, not forgetting diet-friendly sarnies, and those compatible with a range of medical conditions. You name it, it’s out there.
These filtered down the food chain and were commoditised bulk-buy fillings used by cheaper sandwich shops and supermarket version. For example, there’s a two cheese and spring onion in mayo you will see in many places around the country, tuna and sweetcorn, coronation chicken, chicken tikka and many more.
Places like Birley’s and many more brought in proper fresh roasted meats, carved to order, and supplemented the quality product by having online ordering for any occasion, not just catering for events.
But I have problems with sandwiches these days. Firstly, they were at one time cheap, quick and easy at one time. If you buy the ready-made variety they are certainly quick and easy, but even the box standard factory-made sarnies seem to cost close on £3, and anything remotely esoteric or customised seems to rise steeply. It’s often cheaper to get a hot meal from some lunch places than a sandwich, in which case why bother? Bring in your own packed lunch, if you have the time, or sit down with a real meal.
Second, the point about using bread in this way is to contain the filling, but there seem so many creative ways of doing so, particularly street food from across the world recreated for UK consumers, that the sandwich now seems boring and redundant. Should we not be trying something new and different?
Well, the industry tells us the sandwich market is worth about £3.5 bn, compared to £1 bn for the pizza market is only £1bn, so we are not abandoning the old favourites just yet – though it does need to keep innovating to keep us interested.
Just from curiosity, you may wish to see some of the world’s craziest sandwiches and, in the view of the compilers of this list, the greatest sandwiches. In the eye of the beholder maybe, but I always think less is sometimes more.
But in the meantime, courtesy of the British Sandwich Association (did you know they had their own trading body?!) for your edification, here are a few items of sandwich trivia: