Sestercentennial of sandwich worth celebrating

by Morton Sosland
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Anyone in grain-based foods who followed the British Open golf tournament last July should have been keenly aware of the location of the Royal St. George’s golf course on which the Open was played. It is in the town of Sandwich, in the county of Kent, located in England’s south. And yes it is the town often erroneously cited as giving the sandwich its name. Since the legend surrounding this naming traces its first use to 1762, attention to sandwich and Sandwich seems particularly fitting as the 250th anniversary of the food approaches. So far as grain-based foods is concerned, no product plays so overwhelmingly an important role in any food category as does the sandwich for bread.

This sestercentennial (the preferred Latin word for a 250th anniversary) merits recalling the sandwich origin story. It tells that the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, while busy with gambling, asked his servant to bring his meat between two slices of bread as a way of saving time in eating while still playing. What he enjoyed became immediately popular as a way of eating, leading to Mr. Montagu’s hereditary title being given to the food he invented. This tale gains a strange edge when it is realized that the first Earl of Sandwich had originally planned to take the title of the Earl of Portsmouth. At the last minute he changed to Sandwich because the fleet of Naval ships he commanded in 1660 were anchored off of Sandwich in preparation for bringing King Charles II back to England.

The point is that the food known as a sandwich has no connection to the town of Sandwich, only to the Montagu family’s choice of names. This also accounts for speculation that the food might have been known as a portsmouth if the first earl had not changed his mind. Similarly, the islands now known as Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean were initially named Sandwich Isles by Captain James Cook, in appreciation of the then Earl of Sandwich being one of his primary financial sponsors. That early explorer probably knew nothing of the food named sandwich.

Hardly needing saying is the huge importance of the sandwich to present-day grain-based foods. In Britain, where the idea originated, there is even the British Sandwich Association to represent the interests of the many companies with the sandwich as the base of their business. Most of these contract with wholesale bakers to provide their bread and a few do their own bread baking. The United Kingdom’s annual sandwich market is currently estimated at $10 billion, a sixfold increase from 1990. Like in America, Subway is the leading sandwich maker, followed by Greggs, an English company, and then by Pret a Manger, the chain that began in England and now has a presence in America. While it’s a given that sandwiches were the dominant food served during the British Open, to both players and audience, this hardly defines the importance of the sandwich in Britain. It’s difficult to find a retail store, whether food purveyor or not, that is without an offering of freshly-made sandwiches.

Fillings between slices of bread have changed considerably, and types of bread used have also changed with variety offerings now often outselling white. British sandwich sales have been maintained at a growth rate of 2 per cent annually in recent years in contrast with many other food products that barely have held their own during these dismal economic years. Most growth has been in the premium sector, which has gained as consumers compensate for less eating out. Just as the 250th anniversary of the invention of the sandwich will be marked next year — hopefully by all parts of the industry with much to celebrate — the premium leader, Pret a Manger, is having its 25th anniversary. Few parts of any business, including food, have a record of longevity and success like that.

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