Food history: the sandwich

Today, there is an endless array of possibilities with this quintessential lunch food item, but where did the basic concept of meat between bread come from?

Much like with Thomas Jefferson and macaroni and cheese, there is one person credited with the invention of the sandwich, but that it isn’t quite the whole story.


First, the definition of a sandwich: two or more slices of bread or the like with a layer of meat, fish, cheese, etc. between each pair.

As we can see with the official wording of what constitutes a sandwich, there is room to allow for non-meat sandwiches; sandwiches containing something other than bread, such as with wraps or bagels; and sandwiches consisting of more than just two slices of bread.

The man known for creating the sandwich is the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu.

Sources maintain that Montagu, an avid gambler, was playing a 24 hour card game. He needed a food that he could eat that would not interfere with the game, and a cook brought him sliced meat in between two slices of toast. Montagu was able to enjoy his sandwich in one hand, while holding his cards in the other.

The additional players requested “the same as Sandwich.”

The clear problem with this entertaining story is the fact that the cook is the one who really came up with the ingenious sandwich solution.  As puts it, “Sadly the name of the real inventor of the sandwich was not. . .recorded for posterity.”

However, as implied earlier, the notion of sandwiches did come about before Montagu’s card game.

According to, the idea of putting together slices of bread with a filling of some sort is likely to date all the way back to 9,000 B.C.E.: “the first recorded sandwich in history was made by Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem in the 1st century B.C.E. at the time of King Herod.”

Sandwiches did not make it into an American cookbook until 1816. At this time, the middle-part of the sandwich no longer had to consist of cold meat, but could also include “cheese, fruit, shellfish, nuts, and mushrooms.”

Sandwich consumption increased during the Civil War, but the food’s popularity really began to skyrocket in the 1920s with the invention of sliced bread. Prior to this creation, consumers had to cut a slice from a loaf themselves, which yielded to awkward, imperfect slices.

Today, there is such an extensive selection of sandwiches it would be too time consuming to go over them all here. Some classics though – in addition to the traditional sandwich of cold cuts and cheese – include peanut butter and jelly, BLT, grilled cheese, and so many more.

In fact, some sandwiches like the grilled cheese can be further subdivided into their own substantial spectrum of choices.

Go here to check out the history of my personal favorite sandwich of all time, the Reuben.

“Please order anything but the Reuben,” is something the fiance has said to me more than once at restaurants.

Regardless of the type of sandwich you go for, chances are that sandwiches are a significant part of your regular diet. There is just something about stuff fitting perfectly in between slices of bread that is irresistible.