The enduring sandwich: What's not to like about bread and fillings?

by Margo White / 23 September, 2018
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What’s not to like about sandwiches?

There are few things more certain in life than death and taxes, but what about sandwiches? Despite an apparent backlash against bread – against carbohydrates and gluten – the sandwich endures. As it should; it can be made in a minute, filled with whatever is around, eaten with one hand and without getting any muck on said hand.

The invention of the sandwich is commonly credited to John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who sometime in the middle of the 18th century asked for a slice of beef between two slices of bread. The story goes that he was a great gambler and didn’t want to leave the card table, although there’s not much evidence of that. The more convincing story is that he was hard-working and too busy to leave his desk.

But anyway, people had probably been making sandwiches hundreds of years before that. As food writer Bee Wilson notes in Sandwich: A Global History, it’s absurd to think the invention of the sandwich could be traced back to a single moment in time “as if it were a light bulb or spinning jenny”. People had bread and people had ham, so it’s unlikely Montagu was the first to think of putting one inside the other.

What might have made the Earl’s request distinct is that he actually ordered a bit of meat between two slices of bread rather than put it together himself. The trend caught on, others started asking for “what Sandwich is having”, so his name became associated with the pre-fabricated sandwich.

A couple of centuries later, Marks & Spencer turned the ready-made sandwich into one of the great commercial successes of 20th-century Britain when, in the spring of 1980, it began selling chilled, packaged sandwiches. The first was salmon and tomato, although the five outlets trialling pre-fabricated sandwiches had a pretty make-do approach, filling them with whatever they had to hand, including pilchards.

They sold like hotcakes, which took even Marks & Spencer by surprise. Why would people buy sandwiches, when they can make them at home? The pre-packaged sandwich was, in some ways, a great class equaliser. Wilson remembers her father bringing home cream cheese and celery sandwiches when she was four. “What luxury! Marks & Spencer sandwiches brought the privilege of the Edwardian afternoon tea to the masses. It was like having your own butler.”

The sandwich industry in the UK is now worth £8 billion, but the first-ever study of the carbon footprint of sandwiches published earlier this year suggests that’s more sandwiches than the UK can handle. The researchers, from the University of Manchester, looked at the life cycle of 40 different sandwich types, including the production of ingredients, packaging, transportation and refrigeration. The ready-made all-day breakfast sandwich (bacon, egg, sausage) had the highest carbon footprint, producing the same level of carbon dioxide emissions created by driving a car 19km. The researchers said that if people made their own sandwiches rather than buying them ready-made, they’d reduce carbon emissions by half.

There is some debate about what constitutes a sandwich, whether it’s distinct from a burger, bagel or slider, and where a wrap or gozleme fits in. But even the most old-fashioned British style of sandwich, the one involving two slices of bread and a filling of some sort, takes some know-how. You want it not-too-dry but not-too-soggy, so you might think about de-seeding the tomatoes and sweating the cucumbers to avoid the latter. What type of bread? What to use to glue the filling to the bread – butter, mustard or mayonnaise?

And what about the cut of your sandwich? A friend tells me her mother insisted on cutting her school sandwiches straight across, as triangular sandwiches were considered a bit common. If you Google “sandwiches, square or triangular” you might be directed to a programme on NPR (the American public radio organisation) in which they actually debated the question, with chefs, foodies, an architect and a mathematician, who all agreed on the visual superiority of the diagonal. It allows for better display of a sandwich’s interior. The architect compared the diagonally cut sandwich to a burlesque dancer. “Covered enough to be clothed, but uncovered enough to be very, very appealing.”

Diagonal or straight?

If the bread is soft enough, though, you can just fold it. Or you could roll your sandwiches – why limit the aesthetic of the asparagus roll to asparagus? If you want to get fancy about it, you could stick one slice on top of the other, pinch and crimp it at the edges and then cut the crusts off. That’s what a US company did when it developed frozen packets of peanut butter and jelly crustless crimped sandwiches – it even tried to copyright the cut of their sandwiches, without success.

Sandwiches are wonderfully adaptable to social trends. A fashionable bakery in a suburb near mine serves artisanal sandwiches with kumara, fermented-oat or seeded bread that can be filled with things like smoked kahawai or salmon gravalax, spring onion labneh or whipped bottarga (don’t ask me) and carrot or pear kimchi.

The sandwich can, of course, be the site of contemporary anxieties. Not so long ago, peanut butter sandwiches were banned from primary schools, to protect children with peanut allergies. The consensus now is that children with peanut allergies aren’t likely to suffer an anaphylactic attack unless they actually eat someone else’s peanut butter sandwich, and by the time they get to primary school they’re smart enough not to. It’s unclear whether recent studies suggesting that preserved meats are carcinogenic will put people off their ham or bacon sandwiches. I suspect not.

The beauty of the sandwich is that practically anything goes, as suggested by the titles of some sandwich-recipe books published last century: One Hundred and One Sandwiches (1906), the Up to Date Sandwich Book (1909), Seven Hundred Sandwiches (1928) and 1001 Sandwiches (1936). Suggestions included peanut butter and cabbage, and walnuts, lettuce and pineapple.

In 2012, the book critic and essayist Dwight Garner wrote a lengthy piece for the New York Times about the pleasures of the peanut butter and pickled cucumber sandwich, and how “the vinegary snap of chilled pickle cuts, like a dash of irony, against the stoic unctuousness of peanut butter”. Well, when you can put it like that... the recipe is still making the rounds on social media and occasional headlines in the press.

A friend tells me he’s made his own bread (with a breadmaker) for decades, taken sandwiches to work most days, filled with “just bits and bobs from the fridge, often including sauerkraut”. More idiosyncratically, adventurously even, he uses leftover soup that has hardened into a spread. He calls it a soup sandwich and announces it as such to his horrified colleagues. Well, we dip bread into soup, so why not slap some cold soup on our bread? No, I’m not about to either, but don’t let me stop you.

This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.

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