The Earl of Sandwich sounds like a mythical figure from British folklore, but he is, in fact, a very real person. John Montagu, who currently holds the title, is the 11th Earl of Sandwich and serves in the House of Lords.
To kick off HuffPost’s Epic Sandwich Month, we interviewed Montagu, who answers to the formal address of ― no joke ― Lord Sandwich.
Montagu told HuffPost about his hopes and dreams for fish sandwiches, his true feelings about mayonnaise and his belief that sandwich halves should always be cut into triangles. But first, let’s dig deep into the history of his enviable title.
Montagu is a direct descendant of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who is often credited as the inventor of the sandwich. While he may not have invented it, the sandwich was named for him after a particularly lazy moment of ingenuity:
According to legend, the fourth earl enjoyed gambling, and in the middle of a particularly engrossing stretch at the card table in 1762, he ate nothing but a piece of roast beef between two slices of toasted bread because he could hold it in one hand, allowing him to continue playing without having to pause for a meal.
Different renditions of this story have the earl specifically asking for beef between two slices of bread or just requesting something he could eat without having to leave the card table, which forced the house cook to get creative. Some state that he was a gambling addict, while at least one biographer posited that he was not gambling but rather hard at work at his desk and did not wish to take a break for meals.
However it went down, historians know that his title, Earl of Sandwich, was associated with the food term “sandwich,” which became fashionable in England around the time.
In 1762, author and historian Edward Gibbon wrote in a diary entry that he observed “Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”
The current Earl of Sandwich concedes that people in England and beyond were certainly eating sandwiches long before they were ever called sandwiches. He also does not necessarily think his ancestor was a gambling addict, as some versions of the story have suggested.
Speaking to HuffPost from his family’s estate at Mapperton, Montagu described a portrait of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, which hangs in the home.
“I think looking at his attire, it was more difficult for gentlemen of that period to act as we do, because it was difficult to be informal,” he said. “Life was very organized, and even if you just sit at a little table in your London club, you’d still be wearing different costumes and you’d be handling a scroll of paper like he is in this portrait.”
In this sense, eating a piece of meat between two slices of bread was a matter of ease and convenience amid the formality of everyday life for the earl.
“I’m sure his working life was very active. But, of course, every nobleman of that period knew how to play cards and probably gambled, and he was no exception. And he enjoyed the company of other people,” Montagu continued. “So he would’ve been possibly eating some of these [sandwiches] later in the evening. But I do think it was the minority of the time.”
Over the past couple of decades, Montagu’s historical culinary link has become a source of family income. In 2004, he partnered with his younger son Orlando and Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl to launch Earl of Sandwich, a chain of fast-casual sandwich restaurants.
The chain has more than 30 locations in the U.S. and one at Disneyland Paris. They serve such sandwiches as “The Original 1762,” “The Earl’s Club” and “The Full Montagu.”
Though Montagu is quick to emphasize he is not a chef, he does have some opinions on his family’s namesake food. Keep scrolling for more of his thoughts on sandwiches.
What’s your favorite sandwich?
“I rather enjoy a traditional sandwich, roast beef and some salad like watercress, but not one of these very large American sandwiches. I’m not fond of those,” he told HuffPost, adding that he also enjoys a classic French croque monsieur and typically prefers his sandwiches on “wholemeal bread.”
Are sandwiches your favorite food?
“They are at lunchtime because I very rarely eat formally at lunchtime. I’m like a lot of other people who just need to keep going through the lunch hour. At this moment, I’m sitting thinking I really ought to go make some lunch. But I’m not very enthusiastic about making a sandwich. I’m a bit lazy. My favorite would be at lunchtime with a minimum of difficulty.”
What is your least favorite sandwich?
“I think my least favorite is the kind of sandwich that people want to put everything into. It’s stuffed with mayonnaise and has more than three stories. So I would certainly avoid that.”
So do you dislike mayonnaise?
“I prefer homemade hollandaise or mayonnaise. But it’s not that I’m against mayonnaise. I do occasionally have it with other things in sandwiches, with salad or you could have it, of course, with fish. Now a fish sandwich has never really taken off. I don’t know why. We have the prawn sandwich that’s very popular, but I never understand why there isn’t more experimentation with fish sandwiches.”
What does a typical day for you look like?
“Well, I take a lot of exercise. I start on a rowing machine. I do a lot of gardening. My routine, if I’m working at my desk in London, obviously I can’t do so much exercise, but I do quite a lot of walking in London. Some of the time I’m working in the House of Lords and other times in Dorset, which is where I’m speaking from. I’m in meetings for the heritage property, which we look after, and ways of creating more access for the public. Those are the concerns I have during the day. Lots of different things come up.”
What do you define as a sandwich? Some say a wrap is a sandwich, some say a hot dog is a sandwich. Do you have opinions on those debates?
“Well, I’m not a chef. In fact, I don’t do enough cooking. My wife is always helping me to learn more. But I’m not really the right judge of what is a good sandwich or what isn’t a good sandwich. I obviously have a historical link. But my instinct is that a wrap is not a sandwich and that a sandwich is a triangular food with a filling inside between two breads. It could be triangular or it could be cut as a rectangle ― I think there’s some doubt about that, too. Normally it’s still a triangle, which was the original English idea.”
So you prefer sandwiches cut in a triangle?
“Yes, I think it makes it easier to eat them. And always with a paper napkin because you always never know where it’s going to go next.”