The Age-Old Sandwich: A Look at the Oldest Known Varieties

It’s hard to imagine a world without sandwiches. However, this much-loved lunchtime staple wasn’t always as popular as it is today.

Legend has it that the sandwich as we know it was created by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. A well-travelled man, the Earl was also an avid gambler and played cards for hours on end at the card table. Home from his travels and back at the gaming table in London, the earl reputedly called for some roasted juicy meat between two slices of bread to sate his appetite without halting his game. His invention was likely inspired by the filled flatbreads he had encountered in the Mediterranean – a filling rolled in bread is very well-known in ancient Turkish culture. As this dining habit became known to his gambling friends and acquaintances, they would order ‘what Sandwich is having’ or ‘the same as Sandwich’ – and the rest, as they say, is history! From that day forward, the sandwich craze spread across England, and by the late 1780s, it had become a well-established dish.

However, many argue that sandwiches were born long before the Earl travelled to the Mediterranean or used bread to mop the juices from his roasted meat so that he did not spoil his game of cards. One of the earliest known sandwich eaters was Hillel, a rabbi from Jerusalem. A Jewish text read during Passover recounts Hillel making sandwiches with lamb and herbs inside matzoh bread[i] – so could this, in fact, be the original sandwich? 

Once sandwiches had become established in Britain, fillings slowly evolved from just roasted meat. The most popular fillings during the 1800s ranged from egg salad and meat to lobster and sardines. At that time, sandwiches were made with a thick layer of fat, and the meat filling was finely chopped rather than sliced[ii]

After sandwiches became a British staple, they started to make their way across the Atlantic to America. The Americans put their own spin on the creation, creating sloppy joes along with the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

Years later, after sandwiches became a well-established worldwide dish, restaurants and chains supplying only sandwiches were seen as the new norm and extremely popular. In 1965, the famous Subway, previously named Pete’s Super Submarines, opened its first store in Bridgeport, Connecticut and 31 years later, it made its way onto British streets, with the first store opening in Brighton[iii].

Sandwiches have become extremely popular in today’s modern society for lunches, snacks, dinners, and even breakfasts! Whatever the meal, there is a sandwich to fill the empty hole in your stomach.