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21 december 2011

"Sandwich" is an oddly eponymous word. There is no doubt at all that the bread-meat-bread lunch is named for John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-92). There is even less doubt that Montagu didn't invent the concept of putting meat between two slices of bread. That would be like inventing brushing your teeth, or sleeping under a blanket. But in one of those historical oddities, the Fourth Earl's penchant for eating bread thingies led to his name becoming a common noun, then a verb, and finally an all-purpose metaphor for anything between two of another thing. Bee Wilson concludes that the guy "had the kind of character that made people want to name things after him" (22). Captain Cook named Hawaii after him. If he hadn't been First Lord of the Admiralty during the American Revolution, he might have gotten another state or two named after him. Luckily he doesn't appear to have been a friend of James Watt, or most mechanical and electrical terms would have "sandwich" somewhere in them.

Wilson, in Sandwich: A Global History, deflates the notion that Sandwich started eating sandwiches because he was too addicted to leave his cardtable. More likely, he was just a workaholic. He stayed in cabinet-rank offices for a long time, probably by eschewing the three-grog lunch or whatever Admiralty clerks were expensing at the time. And I know how he felt. Between writing the first and second sentences of this paragraph, I ate a sandwich at my desk.

As with soup, sandwiches are one of those foods that become more minimalist in interpretation, the higher up their consumers sit in the social scale. Montagu himself seems to have favored slabs of roast beef on whole wheat, but within a few decades the more etiolated of his fellow peers would be eating little wisps of white bread with a bit of cucumber or cress inserted, and not a crust in sight. In keeping with the strange social discriminations that seem to kick in halfway across the Atlantic, Americans pioneered the sandwich that can feed you for a day or two – the hoagie, the muffaletta, the Dagwood – while the British were still making do with a thin layer of marmite. In part this has to do with the relative price of food in the two nations. Neither country was particularly poor in the last few centuries, but both had times and regions of poverty where the butter was spread decidedly too thin – where jelly subsisted without peanut butter, and where children lived on "bread and marge" alone.

The sandwich has since become the world's basic solid food. Wilson offers a snapshot of trendy sandwiches c.2010. She also wonders about how the sandwich has turned us from sharers in a common dish into selfish eaters, the kind of people who, um, scarf up a sandwich alone in their offices while typing on a laptop.

Wilson, Bee. Sandwich: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2010.