In A Nutshell
In spite of the popular legend, there’s nothing that actually suggests the Earl of Sandwich was pulling an all-nighter at the card table when he requested the meat-laden bread concoction that still bears his name. As Secretary of State at the time, he was more likely hard at work when he made the request. He’s certainly not the first to do so, either, and that’s something that’s credited to a Jewish scholar living in the first century BC. Hillel popularized eating a traditional part of the Passover meal—consisting of matzah, lamb, herbs, and nuts—in a form that we know today as the sandwich.
The Whole Bushel
The popular story goes that the sandwich was invented and then named for the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu. A notorious gambler, he was said to be so hesitant to leave the card table that he requested a servant bring him an easy-to-eat meal of a filling between two pieces of bread.
Hence, the sandwich was born.
It’s a great story, but there’s not much truth to it. It was first recorded in the 1770s by a French writer named Pierre-Jean Grosley in his book Lourdes. Published in English as Tour to London, the anecdote is recorded in only a few lines and describes a sandwich of beef and toasted bread. While the name unarguably came from the Earl, there’s more to it than that.
The incident supposedly happened while Grosley was on his own tour of London in 1765, but the idea that Sandwich was a notorious, all-night gambler and cardplayer was untrue. Historians point to the fact that he was acting as cabinet minister at the time, which would have left little chance for all-night gaming sessions. At the time cited, he was in the middle of overhauling the British Naval Administration front to back—the sort of thing that needs to be done on a good night’s sleep.
Biographers also state that his gambling habit has been embellished and that instead of being the rabid cardplayer he’s usually depicted as, his wagers came in other forms. It’s recorded that once he bet that the French diplomat Chevalier d’Eon was not actually a woman (he was right) and on other rather insignificant matters like the length of roads. He didn’t have that much money to gamble with in the first place anyway, being one of the less-fortunate members of the British upper class.
Regardless of the state of his finances, during the years he was credited with the sandwich invention, he was more likely to be working at his desk and straight through the traditional dinner hour of the day: 4:00 PM.
So while the Earl of Sandwich is credited with naming the sandwich, the first description of what we’d actually recognize today as a sandwich came 2,000 years ago.
The sage Hillel was born in the first century BC in what was then Babylonia. He later traveled to Jerusalem to devote himself to the study of the Torah, and at a time when Jewish law was still hotly debated, it was his interpretations that became the most popular. His work on a verse in Exodus could be said to have changed snack-time forever.
Exodus 12:8 states, “Eat the meat on this night, roasted over fire. With matzah and bitter herbs you shall eat it.”
It’s talking about a traditional Passover meal, made from the meat of the paschal lamb and shared among family and friends. There are plenty of interpretations on how the meal is supposed to be eaten, but it was Hillel’s interpretation that stuck: He stacked the meat and the herbs and bound it all together. At the time, it was called a korech, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to wrap.” While it’s not recorded how the ancient sandwich was put together, it stands to reason that the matzah was wrapped around the meat to make something that anyone would recognize today.
We nearly didn’t call it the sandwich, either. When Edward Montagu (John Montagu’s ancestor) was titled, his original choice was the Earl of Portsmouth. But at the time, he was active in the admiralty and his fleet was docked off the coast of Sandwich. He decided to take this title instead, perhaps the only connection the family ever actually had to the town that would later make them famous.