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Did the Earl Sandwich Really Invent Sandwiches?

Two fresh sub sandwiches with ham, cheese, bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and onions on wooden cutting board
baibaz/Shutterstock

You might have heard the story of the invention of the sandwich—supposedly by an English lord, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, from which it takes its name. But is it true?

The story goes that Montagu (1718-1792) was a bit of a cad with a big thing for gaming and gambling, and especially the card game cribbage. During one marathon, 24-hour session, he asked his chef to bring him two pieces of bread with a slice of meat in between them so he could keep playing while he ate without getting grease all over the cards. Other similarly dedicated players soon started ordering “the same as Sandwich,” and thus the name stuck.

What’s interesting (and makes a change from a lot of these kinds of stories) is that there’s a real grain of truth to it. The word sandwich is derived from Montagu’s title, the Earl of Sandwich, and at its inception meant sliced meat between two slices of bread—pretty much the same thing it means today.

But—even though the sandwich is named after Sandwich, it’s a lot harder to call him the inventor of it. For one, Sandwich’s unnamed chef should probably get that title, but also, because, depending on how you define a sandwich, they’ve been around a lot longer than 300 years.

The Sandwich Debate

What is a sandwich? No, seriously, what is a sandwich? It’s a surprisingly controversial debate.

At its simplest, a sandwich is two slices of bread with some combination of sliced meat, cheese, and vegetables between them. Almost everyone can accept that, although things get more contentious quite quickly.

For example, is a hamburger a sandwich? After all, it’s just meat, cheese, and veg between two bits of bread. What about open-faced sandwiches? Are they sandwiches, despite only have one slice of bread? Or submarine rolls? And if they are, are hot dogs sandwiches? And maybe even burritos? But if a burrito isn’t a sandwich because it only uses a single tortilla (as determined by a Boston judge in 2006), what about quesadillas made with two tortillas?

If you want to start an argument the next time you’re out with your friends, make the argument that pizza is technically a sandwich because it’s just a toasted open-face sandwich, which is obviously a sandwich—it’s in the name.

An Ancient Dish

While it’s hard to get everyone to agree on a universal definition of the sandwich, it’s clear that people have been putting toppings on bread as long as there have been things to use as toppings—and bread.

Flatbreads, rather than loaves, are a big part of a lot of Indian, Middle Eastern, and African cuisines. Curry just isn’t the same without naan bread to scoop up bits of meat and soak up the sauce, and it’s hard to imagine someone there when Jesus was handing out loaves and fishes didn’t think to stick their bit of halibut between two torn-off bits of bread. These ancient culinary takes might not meet your definition of a sandwich, but they’re certainly related.

Even in 18th Century England, before sandwiches became known as sandwiches, they were referred to as “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese.” It’s not that Sandwich invented the dish, so much as his name became attached to it as it was, in something approaching its modern form, getting popular.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »