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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The sandwich's namesake

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Earl of Sandwich
Recently, in this column we discussed names of widely used products that carried the name of the inventor of that product. I was stopped by a reader who took me to task because I had not mentioned the sandwich and the inventor of that common staple in our lives. Then he proceeded to tell me that the summer favorite that we know as a BLT was named after that great Southern Civil War General, Robert E. Lee -- "BLT stands for "Bobby Lee's Triumph." Not that I would doubt a dear reader's facts -- let it be said that I had not heard of that connection between that particular sandwich and the General.

John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich 1718-1792, is widely credited with originating the concept of the sandwich. This of course is not the case. The practice of serving a piece of meat between two slice of bread surely goes back to Roman times, and probably goes back to prehistoric times, when a caveman used pieces of bark to retrieve meat from the campfire.

However the Earl of Sandwich did popularize the custom. The Earl was a gambler, and when the cards were running in his favor he hated to leave the table. So, the story goes, he would order his dinner between two pieces of bread, so that he would not get his fingers dirty and soil the cards. His companions began to order, "Just bring me what Sandwich is having", and hence, "Just bring me a sandwich."

The Earl of Sandwich was an interesting, if unsavory historical figure. In his time he was called, "the most universally disliked man in England!" He was "anti religion" and anti-democracy." He despised the general public and opposed leaders who tried to get a better break for the common man. He held a number of high public offices, notably the 1st Lord of the Admiralty. Most of all, he also enjoyed a strong friendship, and the complete confidence of King George III, and was one of the most powerful men in the country, in his position as head of the Royal Navy.

The Earl was a member of a group of Satan Worshippers, called "The Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe," or "The Hell Fire Club." The group was known for drinking, gambling, and debauchery. Montagu was Executive Officer of the Hell Fire Club, and was described by one of the members as "mischievous as a monkey, and lecherous as a goat." The Earl himself boasted of his conquests of young women "because he enjoyed the corruption of innocence, for its own sake."

In public life the Earl was known for his incompetence and corruption. He has the distinction of messing up the Royal Navy so badly that it could not operate effectively, and that is one of the reasons given for the failure of England to keep the Colonies in line during the American Revolution. When the Earl died, one of the epitaphs suggested was, "Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little."

Nevertheless, The Earl of Sandwich did two things which had a positive effect on the world -- 1. He was a strong backer of Admiral Cook and his exploration voyages. Cook was appreciative of his efforts in his behalf, and named the islands we now call the Hawaiian Islands, The Sandwich Islands. 2. Later, when the name of the islands was changed to Hawaii, The Earl of Sandwich was left with just "The Sandwich" as his legacy, the product which he did so much to popularize, if not invent.

In the present day we have a good many items that we refer to as sandwiches. The practice of piling up multiple layers of fillings on a sandwich was made popular by Dagwood, of the long-running comic strip, Blondie, who used whatever was in his refrigerator to build his sandwich. At the other extreme are the dainty, open-faced canapés, so popular at wedding receptions, or open-faced bacon, tomato and cheese sandwiches, grilled until the cheese melts -- an August Midwest favorite.

Then there is the kids' favorite, the open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Our daughter, Marie, is a kindergarten teacher. At her school the cafeteria decided to have a treat for the kids one day and put PBJs on the menu. Marie saw one little boy break into a smile when they put the peanut butter and jelly sandwich on his tray, and heard him exclaim, "Boy, you just can't beat home cooking."

Pita bread has made roll-up sandwiches possible, and very popular. Sometimes, as in the case of a Biéroc, a delicacy brought to America by the Germans from Russia, the filling is baked inside its bread casing. This makes this sandwich easy to transport. We had one over-the-road truck driver who had us wrap his Bierocs in foil, so he could put them on his engine block while he traveled. When he stopped for lunch he had his steaming Bieroc -- ready to eat.

Some sandwiches don't even have bread as wrappers. The taco, made with a crispy corn tortilla, has become a universal favorite throughout the USA. The girls at the bakery now offer most of their sandwiches with a leaf lettuce wrap -- to accommodate one lady (or perhaps more) who cannot eat wheat products. (They're very good!)

People in different parts of the country, and abroad, look upon the sandwich in many different ways. One time our family was traveling in France. We all had pretty much over-eaten on the delicious French cuisine, with its rich sauces, decadent desserts, and wine. When we stopped for the night at a small country inn in Normandy, my Dad, who was traveling with us, conveyed his order to our waiter, "Could you just bring me a sandwich and a glass of beer? Do you understand -- sandwich?" "Oh yes, Monsieur, I understand sandwich." In a few minutes he returned with a very different product than we were expecting. The chef had sliced in half one rather large, and very crusty baguette. Inside was one lonely, paper thin slice of ham -- no mayo or mustard. Dad could not possibly get his mouth around the "sandwich," nor could he cut it with his fork. But our waiter was so proud of his creation that Dad merely smiled, while the rest of us could barely contain our laughter. But it was OK. The baguette was delicious, as was the ham -- what there was of it, and the experience was priceless, so all ended well.

The Germans have contributed to the idea of the sandwich, but it is quite mysterious. For instance, probably the most popular sandwich in the U.S. is the hamburger (presumably brought from the Port of Hamburg, Germany to the Port of New York by sailors). We found that at least some Germans serve their hamburger on a delicious, crusty Kaiser Roll (after Kaiser Wilhelm of World War I fame). But the frankfurter (which Germans claim dates back to Frankfurt in 1484) is served at open-air fairs with just a bit of cardboard around the sausage, to keep your fingers from getting burned or soiled -- and no bun at all. Strange. Some German butchers made their sausages long and skinny, like a Dachshund dog. The Americans took that concept back to the U.S., and called them long dogs, or just dogs, which they served as "hot dogs."

There are no doubt many other examples of sandwiches, which deserve to be looked at, but it is nearly lunch time and all this talk about food has made me very hungry. I intend to pay my respects to the Earl of Sandwich and his contribution to the culinary world, and I must decide just which sandwich I shall order today. Bon appétit!

Source: Words for our Modern Age --Sandwich

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By