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When is a sandwich not a sandwich?

Aug. 09, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

It may seem strange, but one of the language differences between Britain and America that still causes me to pause if I hear it is when my family calls a hamburger a sandwich. I guess technically the description is true, the dictionary tells me a sandwich is at least two slices of bread with one or more filling items between them and of course that describes a hamburger perfectly. Living in Britain though, I can never remember anyone using the word to describe a burger. They were just that, a burger, a hamburger or even a beef burger.

I also grew up thinking the sandwich was a British invention. The story I heard when I was younger was that the inventor was John Montagu, an 18th Century member of the British aristocracy. According to legend, Montagu was extremely fond of playing the card game cribbage and did not want to leave the gaming table to eat nor did he want to get greasy finger marks on the cards. To get over this he apparently ordered his valet to bring him 'meat tucked between two pieces of bread.' Montagu's title was the Earl of Sandwich - Sandwich is a town on England's south east coast - and the snack proved so popular that other card players wanted to try it. They ordered 'the same as Sandwich' and so the name stuck.

This legend, which may have started when the journal of Edward Gibbons, author of "The rise and fall of the Roman Empire" was published, is wrong of course. In the journal he mentions "bits of cold meat" and called them "Sandwichis." Alternatively, the name could stem from the publication of "Londres," written by Pierre-Jean Grosley in 1770. The Frenchman had spent the year 1765 living in London and the book was the account of his stay. In it he mentions the story about the Earl of Sandwich. The Earl's biography, written by N. A. M. Rodger, also mentions the story but has a different version. In it Rodger, who is a British naval historian, says that Sandwich worked hard for the navy, politics and the arts and rather than leave his work in order to eat he frequently ordered sandwiches so he could carry on working at his desk.

Whichever tale is true the Earl certainly did not invent the sandwich, it was known about long before he came on the scene and was simply called "meat and bread" or "cheese and bread." The first written mention I can find, shortly before the birth of Jesus Christ, was when the Jewish religious leader Hillel the Elder is supposed to have taken meat from the Paschal lamb, added certain herbs and eaten it between two pieces of flat, unleavened bread called matzah. I understand this is still celebrated today during the Jewish Passover celebration.

In the early Middle Ages people in Europe didn't have tableware and so food was served on trenchers, thick slabs of stale bread which were often eaten with the rest of the meal, making a sort of medieval open sandwich. Later , John Ray, a 17th Century English clergyman who toured Europe reported that Dutch taverns had joints of beef hanging from the rafters and that the drinkers would cut slices from these and put them on bread and butter before eating them. He seemed to think this was a novel way of eating meat and so it would seem that open sandwiches were not common in England at that time.

After the Earl of Sandwich ordered one, the sandwich grew in popularity among the upper classes and gradually began to be served as a late supper dish in the better off homes in England but it was the growth of industry that spread it to the common people. Workers in the new factories toiled for long hours and needed to take food they could carry with them that was inexpensive and filling. The sandwich was the answer, and soon afterwards the concept spread from Europe to the United States where bread was fast becoming a staple food.

So we are back where we started. By any definition a burger is a sandwich and I guess I have to get used to that. Apparently though, snacks such as burritos and tacos, are not sandwiches since they usually include only one tortilla, and a court in Massachusetts has actually issued a ruling stating this. It doesn't matter to me, call them what you will, I like sandwiches and shall continue to eat them when the urge takes me.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.