Who invented the sandwich? No one has a clue. The first person associated with a sandwich is Hillel, described in the haggadah to have folded the korbon pesach meat and moror inside a matzah to fulfill the posuk, “You shall eat it [the pesach] on matzos and moror.”
THE NON-EXISTENT HILLELEET
The story of Hillel making a matzah sandwich is so oft quoted in cooking circles that some writers get the details confused. One writer imagines that the charoses was the main ingredient of the sandwich, writing that Hillel “started the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between two matzohs to eat with bitter herbs. The filling between the matzohs served as a reminder of the suffering of the Jews before their deliverance from Egypt and represented the mortar used by the Jews in their forced labor of constructing Egyptian buildings.”
Modern Hebrew took the story of Hillel into account and named all sandwiches kerichot, rejecting the opinion of some who wanted to call them Hilleleets. Most Israelis ignore the formal Hebrew term for sandwiches and call them sandvichim in imitation of the English term which associates the food item with John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.
Lord Sandwich is generally portrayed as a dedicated gambler who had not a minute for meals during card games and ordered servants to bring him meat sandwiched between bread slices to snack on as he played.
But the original source of the story, French author-traveler Pierre-Jean Grosley’s A Tour of London, where he described a 1765 trip to the city, spoke of only one gambling spree, albeit a long one.
“A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt (sic) 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 (sic) without ever quitting the game,” Grosley wrote. “This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”
The gambling bout must have occurred a while before Grosley’s 1765 visit, because two years earlier, English historian Edward Gibbons’ journal entry for November 24, 1762, already used the word sandwich to describe what was served at an upper class eatery.
“I dined at the Cocoa Tree with Holt, who, under a great appearance of oddity, conceals more real honour, good sense and even knowledge than half those who laugh at him,” Gibbons wrote. “We went thence to the play (The Spanish Friar), and, when it was over, returned to the Cocoa Tree. That respectable body, of which I have the honour to be a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin in the middle of a coffee room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”
Sandwich’s biographer, Nicholas Rodger (born 1949), argued against the gambling element of the sandwich legend, objecting that “Grosley’s book is a piece of travel literature.”
“There is no supporting evidence for this piece of gossip, and it does not seem very likely that it has any foundation, especially as it refers to 1765, when Sandwich was a Cabinet minister and very busy,” Rodger wrote. “There is no doubt, however, that he was the real author of the sandwich, in its original form using salt beef, of which he was very fond. The alternative explanation is that he invented it to sustain himself at his desk, which seems plausible since we have ample evidence of the long hours he worked from an early start, in an age when dinner was the only substantial meal of the day, and the fashionable hour to dine was four o’clock.”
Rodger’s claim that Sandwich was undoubtedly the inventor of the sandwich “in its original form” is shaky. In a 2004 article, Bread and Meat for G-d’s Sake, Canadian author Mark Morton pointed out that Sandwich was surely not the first Englishman to hit on the idea of placing meat between slices of bread. After combing through hundreds of texts, Morton came to the conclusion that the until Sandwich’s time, the sandwich was simply called “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese.” The most Sandwich did was provide sandwiches with a name.
Whatever really happened, the Earl of Sandwich not only stole the honor of providing sandwiches with their name from Hillel, but also despised Jews in general.
In his book Voyage Round the Mediterranean (page 206), he repeated the ancient canard that Jewish commercial success was due to cutting corners and wrote that the Turkish Jews were “In these as in most other countries despised and looked upon as a most unworthy race of people, who are suffered only in the government as a necessary evil, being of service to it on account of their disposition for trade which they promote in all parts, wherever they make their settlement.”
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread
The first recipe book to mention sandwiches was Charlotte Mason’s The Ladies Assistant for Regulating and Supplying the Table (1787), where she instructed to “Put some very thin slices of beef between thin slices of bread…; cut the ends off neatly, lay them in a dish.”
The first evidence of sandwiches’ arrival in the United States is found in another recipe book, Elizabeth Leslie’s Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (1840), which contained, she claimed, “perhaps the greatest number of practical and original receipts that have ever appeared in a similar work.” Here she instructed how to prepare three different types of sandwiches using various types of meat.
In November 1927, a New York Times article proclaimed that sandwich eating had undergone a paradigm. Titled Sandwiches Flourishing, the article stated:
“The day of the sandwiches has arrived. It is so proclaimed by placards and posters plastered over the business districts. A new type of lunchroom substantiates the announcement – the ‘sandwich house.’ It may offer side lines of hot dishes and pastries, but to sandwiches it owes its existence… There is a machine that slices the loaves and another that slices the meat. This last, at the press of a button, cuts and stacks ham, tongue, beef and so on without touch of human hands.
“Sandwich-making is thus facilitated and sandwiches themselves have changed not only in status but also in stature and girth… The vogue of the sandwich is attributed to a considerable extent to the rush of modern business life. Men have no time to sit around leisurely waiting for large orders. They must grab a bite, preferably wholesome and satisfying, but essentially without delay.”
The bread cutting machine the article mentions had just been invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder (1880-1960) who began his career as a jeweler and became the owner of three jewelry stores, but at the same time used the technical knowhow gained from his work with watches and jewelry to invent new machines. To develop his bread slicing machine, he sold his jewelry stores to fund the effort, culminating in the 1927 design of a machine that not only sliced the bread but also wrapped it to keep the slices from falling apart and drying out.
The first recorded company to use his product was the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which bombastically described the slicer as “The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped,” perhaps inspiring the common exaggeration that something is “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
The popularity of sliced bread grew to such heights that uproar broke out when it was outlawed in 1943 as part of World War 2 posterity measures to save wrapping paper.
“I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household,” a housewife complained to the New York Times. “My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast- two pieces for each one- that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!”
The ban was rescinded in less than two months after the anticipated savings of its ban turned out to be less than expected.
THE SANDWICH LAWSUIT
What is a sandwich? This became subject of a lawsuit in 2006 when the Panera Bread Co. bakery-and-food chain tried to prevent a shopping center from renting space to a branch of Qdoba Mexican Grill, citing a clause in the lease that gave Panera exclusive rights to sandwich shops in the center.
Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke ruled in the Mexican grill’s favor, arguing that according to Webster’s Dictionary and testimony from a chef and other authorities, “A sandwich is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans.”
Influential federal judge Richard Posner argued with Locke’s definition of sandwich (although he concurred with his verdict), quibbling that “A sandwich does not have to have two slices of bread; it can have more than two (a club sandwich) and it can have just one (an open-faced sandwich). The slices of bread do not have to be thin, and the layer between them does not have to be thin either. The slices do not have to be slices of bread: a hamburger is regarded as a sandwich, and also a hot dog- and some people regard tacos and burritos as sandwiches, and a quesadilla is even more sandwich-like.”
Posner could have added that nowadays, matzos are used to sandwich not only moror, but for almost anything else, so long as it’s kosher lepesach.