All sandwiches are made with bread and filling. The bread can be plain or fancy, leavened or unleavened. The filling can be anything from plain eggs to the fanciest concoctions borne out of really wild imagination. But not all sandwiches are created equal. And whether or not a sandwich is good has nothing to do with its being plain or fancy. Some of the heartiest and most memorable sandwiches are made with the most common ingredients and it is the combination of the ingredients that makes a sandwich either memorable or forgettable.
But where did the sandwich come from? Who made and ate the first sandwich?
The English-speaking world thinks that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), made the first meat between-bread-slices-concoction. Montagu held military and political offices during his lifetime. He was also a gambler who did not want to be interrupted while playing. Hence, he’d tell his servants to bring him salt beef between bread slices so he could have his meal right there on the card table. So said Pierre-Jean Grosley, a self-styled local historian and travel writer, who in his book “Tours to London” wrote:
A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.
Nicholas A. M. Rodger, historian of the British Royal Navy (the 4th Earl of Sandwich served as First Lord of the Admiralty for three terms), later called Grosley’s claim a “piece of gossip”.
The practice of placing meat between slices of bread is much, much older than the 4th Earl of Sandwich. It was already being practiced thousands of years before Montagu was born. Hillel the Elder (110BCE-10CE), a Jewish religious leader, was already doing it and ordering others to do it too.
Long before the card tables of 18th century England, Hillel the Elder, the 1st century rabbi for whom our movement is named, argued that elements of the Passover Seder, including maror (bitter herbs) and charoset (sweet apples and nuts) should be placed in between two slices of matzah and eaten in a sandwich.
Over the centuries, the very concept of what a sandwich is evolved. Not only does it contain “meat” which can also be poultry or seafood, it also often includes salad greens and cheese among the filling. These days, with vegetarianism and veganism being fashionable, there are even vegetable-only fillings for sandwiches.
All the time that I was growing up, sandwich filling seemed to have an order in which they were placed on the bottom slice (or half) of the bread — spread, greens, meat, cheese (if using), tomato and onion slices. Except for burgers, the meat almost always consisted of thin slices of cold meat like ham, salami, bologna… It was the same everywhere as though there was an unwritten but strictly followed ritual for sandwich making.
The truth, of course, is that there is no rule in sandwich making except that the finished product is bread slices with filling in between (with an open-faced sandwich, only one slice of bread is required!). What kind of bread should be used, and what the filling should be, well, anything goes. Think of the Vietnamese bahn mi and the fresh herbs that go into it. Neither is there a proper order by the which the fillings should be piled on the bread. So long as bread is used to convey the filling into your mouth, it’s a sandwich.