Hearken back to the good old days when, with family, friends, or co-workers, you could enter a restaurant, gather around a table, and be handed a menu by a waitress with a completely visible smile. As you peruse the menu, you probably come across the category “Sandwiches” and know that under it will be a variety of entrees consisting of fillings lovingly smushed between starchy slices. Now, instead of having a smiling waitress place your BLT or pastrami-on-rye in front of you, you are picking it up via drive-through, having it delivered, or making it at home. Let’s face it: affordable, filling sandwiches are still go-to’s in these days of mayhem and uncertainty just as they have fed us through ups and downs for countless years. Children, adults, and seniors alike enjoy them, can meet nearly any dietary requirements, and can stand alone or be paired with sides. But have you ever wondered, “Why is this thing called a ‘sandwich’ when clearly (or, hopefully) neither sand nor witches have anything to do with it?” Today’s post is dedicated to the history, variety, and legality surrounding the funnily named entree with a little reader participation sprinkled on top like paprika on an open-faced tuna melt.
Placing meat, sauce, or other relatively wet ingredients within the confines of some variety of bread was perhaps adopted by many people groups from the time that people began to eat food. However, many historians point to a pivotal event as the birth of the sandwich as a fashionable food rather than a culinary convenience. The story goes that in 1762 John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was playing cards and was so involved that he did not want to sate his hunger with the distractions of utensils or anything too fancy that would interfere with the game. He requested something that could be eaten with one hand, and historians suggest that he might have requested a dish like those he had seen on his trips to the Mediterranean region: cheese and meats held between slices of bread (Butler, 2018). The cook sent up exactly what his boss needed: sliced meat between two pieces of toast, and the sandwich was born (Olver, 2015). (If you’re curious, the earldom of Sandwich is still alive and kicking with the Eleventh Earl of Sandwich (John Edward Hollister Montagu) in residence at Mapperton in Dorset [Earl of Sandwich, 2020]).
Not long after that, the use of the word “sandwich” referring to edible fare and not the English peer appeared in the diary of a man named Edward Gibbon (Olver, 2015). However, sandwiches were not exceedingly embraced by Western masses early on as sandwiches were first enjoyed by English gentry and abhorred by American colonists because they were, well, English (Olver, 2015). Recipes for sandwiches became more prevalent in cookbooks through the 19th Century in the U.S., and acceptance of the sandwich as a filling, fast, and relatively healthy choice for workers’ lunches was cemented by the early 20th Century (Olver, 2015). Today, sandwiches are mainstays in modern cuisine for many cultures, and in the U.S. sandwich names such as BLT, Reuben, PB&J, and club hardly need explanation (Sandwich, 2020). Sandwich preferences are hard-wired in people, and are fertile grounds for fruitful discussion. In 2019, a poll of 1,223 people conducted by YouGov revealed the relative popularity of fifteen of the most common sandwiches served in the U.S. (De Maria, 2019). Here is the list, and I dare you to keep from crying out in horror if your favorite is towards the bottom of the pack.
- Grilled Cheese
- Grilled Chicken
- Roast Beef
- Peanut Butter and Jelly
- Pulled Pork
- Egg Salad
- French Dip
Interestingly, 60% of those surveyed thought burgers should qualify as a sandwich, 34% thought a hot dog should be in the category, and 15% thought tacos (really, people?) should be in the running, too (De Maria, 2019). But the debate surrounding what actually qualifies as a sandwich isn’t just fodder for late-night dorm talk or light-hearted family banter. This issue has been at the core of litigation, such as the 2006 case of White City Shopping Ctr., LP v. PR Restaurants, LLC in which defendants had to argue that burritos, quesadillas, and tacos were not sandwiches and could be sold in a retail location in which the sandwich market was limited (Park, 2019). Also, USDA regulates open-face sandwiches (“must contain at least 50 percent cooked meat”), whereas FDA oversees closed-face sandwiches which must contain at least 35 percent cooked meat and less than or equal to 50 percent bread (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2005). Things get more complicated when the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book uses the phrase “sandwich-like” to describe certain foods like fajitas and burritos, but these items must contain at least 15 percent meat or 10 percent cooked poultry (USDA, 2005).
An infamous discussion of whether a hot dog is a sandwich took place in the Buffalo Bills locker room in 2015, and, as was evident, this debate can rage hotter than a jalapeno-packed juicy Lucy. Staff at The Atlantic, which covered the hot dog debate, created a “Sandwich Index” that can easily determine whether something qualifies for the category (Garber, 2015). However, though the index might put the hot dog debate to rest, acceptance of some food items that meet all the Index’s criteria (an exterior made of two separate or mostly separate carbohydrate-based pieces, an overall horizontal orientation, and full portability) such as s’mores or Oreos might just fan the flames of brand new debates.
In our household, we’ll be as neutral as Swiss cheese and avoid these debates unless we remained quarantined the whole summer and reach brand new levels of boredom and animosity. Hopefully the wide range of comforting sandwiches we know and love will nourish us and keep us alive long enough to celebrate National Sandwich Day on November 3 which just so happens to be the birthday of John Montagu the guy who started it all (Olver, 2015).
So now, I ask you, good readers: What is your favorite sandwich? Is a hot dog a sandwich? What shouldn’t qualify as a sandwich? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Butler, S. (22 Aug. 2018). The story of the sandwich. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/the-story-of-the-sandwich.
De Maria, M. (13 Aug. 2019). These are the most popular sandwiches in America. Eat This, Not That!. Retrieved from https://www.eatthis.com/most-popular-sandwiches-america/.
Earl of Sandwich. (15 Jan. 2020). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_of_Sandwich.
Garber, M. (5 Nov. 2015). It’s not a sandwich. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/11/its-not-a-sandwich/414352/.
Mapperton. (16 March 2020). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mapperton.
Olver, L. (20 March 2015). FAQs: sandwiches. Food Timeline. Retrieved from http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodsandwiches.html.
Park, A. (22 Feb. 2019). Constructing the sandwich. Minnesota Law Review. Retrieved from https://minnesotalawreview.org/2019/02/22/constructing-the-sandwich/.
Sandwich. (26 Feb. 2020). In Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/sandwich.
United States Department of Agriculture (Aug. 2005). Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/7c48be3e-e516-4ccf-a2d5-b95a128f04ae/Labeling-Policy-Book.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.