by Ute Margaret Saine:
When the Earl of Sandwich (John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792) started serving the first sandwiches to his guests in London, they were not, properly speaking, a new invention. Mouth-filling portions of a sweet or a savory nature, appropriately called “bocconcini” (little mouthfuls) in Italian and “bocadillos” in Spanish, had been prepared for centuries, if not millenia, and not only in Mediterranean countries. These bits or “bites” were particularly appropriate for societies that ate without a table, seated on upholstered benches, or sofas, around the periphery of a room, or on the floor itself, where food was served on top of a special cloth akin to a tablecloth. Bite-size food most likely originated with nomadic cultures, where eating al fresco during outings or expeditions was common, whether during peace or war.
Lord Sandwich had not only been Postmaster General and was involved in a goodly number of wars and ambassadorships. He was the British envoy at the Congress of Breda in 1748, which prepared the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) of the same year, concluding the War of the Austrian Succession. But more importantly, at three different periods he served as First Lord of the Admiralty.
In that capacity, Lord Sandwich became the great supporter of Captain Cook’s three voyages to Polynesia (1768-71; 1772-75; and 1776-79). Cook was one of the first seafarers to include artists scientists on board, painting and surveying fauna and flora, naming much of the terra incognita of the Pacific, and even describing the customs of the “natives.” Incidentally the Forsters, father and son, Scottish-East Prussian scientists on board, convinced Cook to serve “sauerkraut” to his crew in order to prevent the great naval killer, scurvy. It regularly decimated crews on circumnavigations, due to their lack of ingesting Vitamin C, before “exotic” fruit and vegetables became familiar. Unused to the fermented cabbage, the British sailors detested it.
As a sponsor of Captain Cook, Lord Sandwich probably encountered descriptions of Polynesian eating habits, where bite-sized food was at times cooked wrapped in banana leaves. In fact, the grateful captain named his prize “discovery” after the Lord, the Sandwich Islands, today known as Hawaii, before he was killed there by the natives.
But Sandwich may also have gotten the idea for the sandwich from the Orient: in his youth he had spent many months travelling, initially going on the Grand Tour round Continental Europe, before visiting the more unusual easterly destinations of Greece, Turkey and Egypt, which were then part of the Ottoman Empire. This familiarity with other cultures led Sandwich to later found a number of Orientalist societies in England. He was the model of the curious, open-minded world traveler.
In fact, in this period, using a table for meals was common only among Europeans, continental as well as insular. Already in the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the poet Wace wrote in Norman language about the Arthurian legend of some Celtic nobles, the Knights of the Round Table, who characteristically ate and drank around the table that became a symbol of their chivalric union. European literature is full of references to tables, at which significant fights or amours are carried out.
Things decidedly began to change with Lord Sandwich. Of course, his enemies – and powerful men have their detractors – claimed that the origin of the sandwich was inglorious: the Earl had his servant prepare sandwiches, because he was loath ever to leave the gambling table. The same bad tongues claimed his epitaph ought to read: “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little”. Whereas the Lord’s defenders think that he mostly ate sandwiches so as not to have to leave his desk.
But in truth, the Eighteenth century, everywhere, not just in England, was the century of splendid, untiring conversations, we sense a breath of fresh, liberal air, even between members of different social classes – supposing they were invited to the party -, but also a more extensive communication between masters and servants. Get togethers no longer revolved around the dining room table, but people rather gathered in the living room, among a crop of recently appeared furniture variously called sofa, divan, canapé, and couch, together with the “ottoman,” an upholstered footrest imported from the eponymous Empire, or else people milled around in a great hall, drifting between clusters of invited guests, and conversing, always conversing.
The 18th century was the origin of the great age of gossip, which continues to this day. In this setting, with its small side tables, it made more sense to enjoy “sandwiches,” so as not to distract – or detract – from a fascinating conversation. So the idea of the predetermined, pre-cut portion carried.
Furthermore, portioned helpings of a sort soon began to influence opulent sit-down banquets as well, because huge platters of pre-cut servings accelerated the speed with which servants could serve a roast to a large group of people. But basically, the Earl’s invention was a hand-held victual of between one and six bites, with a savory filling encased at top and bottom by a crust of bread, which, if it was the slightest bit stale, could be toasted beforehand. And this is the meaning of the word sandwich to this day.
Thus the sandwich is neither Oriental nor Occidental, instead it represents a global synthesis of multinational origins, of the kind that can occur when people are of good will, rather than wishing to cut each other’s throats. It is a revenge against the fancy cutlery and staid manners of the European sit-down dinner, allowing people to revert to eating with their fingers, as is obvious at any Hollywood, or Bollywood, or world-wide cocktail party. It emphasizes that gregariousness and lively banter have always been a mainstay of human “feeding sessions.”
And if we take the sandwich outdoors, into our leisure time and vacation, it becomes the picknick, “le déjeuner sur l’herbe”.
© Ute Magaret Saine
»»here in Italian.