Popular legend has it that the sandwich was the creation of 18th century English aristocrat John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, a notorious gambler who enjoyed playing cribbage with fellow members of the Beef Steak Club in London’s Shakespeare Tavern. Unwilling to leave the gaming table even for sustenance, Montagu asked his valet to bring his beef steak tucked between two slices of toast so he could eat without a fork and without soiling his fingers, allowing his cards to remain clean while he simultaneously ate and played. Soon others were ordering “the same as Sandwich,” and a sandwich became known as food men shared during a late night of drinking and gambling.
Montagu also was a prominent statesman who liked to travel. He served as First Lord of the Admiralty and was a patron of Captain James Cook’s voyages of discovery to Alaska, Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand and Polynesia. In gratitude, Cook named Hawaii the Sandwich Islands and a large island at the entrance to Alaska’s Prince William Sound Montague Island. It is likely that Montagu, during excursions to the eastern Mediterranean, had come into contact with pita sandwiches and small canapes served by Greeks and Turks as mezes, and appropriated the convenient concept. It seems unlikely that he was the first ever to convey food to his mouth on or between pieces of bread. But whether Montagu actually invented the sandwich or merely popularized it among the British gentry, the Wall Street Journal once called his effort Britain’s “biggest contribution to gastronomy.”
By the 19th century, workers in the Industrial Revolution needed fast, cheap, portable meals, and sandwiches were an obvious solution. And when bakeries started selling presliced bread, sandwiches were a breeze to prepare. They have since become a staple at picnics and in lunch boxes for school children and adults alike.