On another of those annual returns to the Aubrey-Maturin series of books by Patrick O’Brian, I recently came across the passage in The Reverse of the Medal (Book 11) where Dr Maturin, along with his good friend, Sir Joseph is engrossed in a preserved collection of snakes, frogs and insects. Their fascination is interrupted by the housekeeper announcing dinner…
‘If the gentlemen would like to eat their dinner while it is hot,’ said Sir Joseph’s housekeeper in a carefully restrained voice, ‘perhaps they will come now.’
‘Heavens, Mrs Barlow,’ said Sir Joseph, peering at the clock behind a heap of preserved serpents, ‘I am afraid we are late.’
‘Could we not eat it in our hand?’ asked Stephen. ‘Like a sandwich?’
‘No, sir, you could not,’ said Mrs Barlow. ‘A soufflé is not a sandwich. Though it may be very like a pancake if you do not come directly.’
‘People say unkind things about Lord Sandwich,’ observed Stephen as they sat down, ‘but I think mankind is very much in his debt for that genial invention…’ — Patrick O’Brian, The Reverse of the Medal
These days it is hard for people anywhere to imagine life without sandwiches. Who doesn't sometimes eat at a desk, or grip a sandwich in one hand, a steering wheel in the other? We all have our favorites as well as the restaurants, bars, delis or cafés that serve up a limitless variety that the Earl of Sandwich could never have imagined. I grew up eating mayonnaise between two slices of bread, working my way up to fried Spam sandwiches and years later discovering the incredible Watterson sandwich at Beef O’Brady’s—a double handful of roast beef and Swiss cheese on grilled rye with mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion. During the time I spent in Japan I often encountered a trio of sandwiches that always jangled my thoughts on the art of combining ingredients. The first was a potato salad sandwich, and then a noodle sandwich and finally a strawberry and cream sandwich. Eventually I tried all three, but let’s just say that once was enough.
The Dutch were eating something resembling a sandwich in the 17th century, where tavern owners hung beef from the rafters, cutting it into thin slices to lay over bread spread with butter, but the sandwich didn’t get its name until 1762 when British statesman and 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu got hungry during long hours at the poker table. He asked his servant to bring him something to eat that wouldn’t interfere with the game. Hearing the Earl’s request, the cook took slices of roast beef and put them between pieces of toast. For a card player it was the perfect solution—a hearty meal eaten with one hand and still able to hold cards in the other. The Earl being an influential man, other players soon began calling for “the same as Sandwich.” We find this anecdote in the eighteenth-century travel book Tour to London, by Pierre Jean Grosley, but there is little more than rumor to substantiate the claim. Sandwich’s biographer offers an alternative, that the Earl’s commitments to the navy, politics and the arts make it more likely that the first sandwich was eaten at his work desk.
Dr Maturin's comment above that people said unkind things about Lord Sandwich, is based on historical fact about the man and his habits. Montagu (1718-1792) was well-known as a man of promiscuous habits and a love of gambling. During his lifetime he held a number of military and political offices, being at one time Postmaster General, First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State. Sandwich was a great supporter of Captain Cook, who during his exploration of the Pacific Ocean named the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) after his patron. Montagu retired from public life in 1782 and many might have hinted that it was a retirement too late in coming. His incompetence and corruption were broad enough to prompt a suggestion that a proper epitaph would be: “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.”