Have you ever wondered what the original sandwich tasted like?
It seems like sandwiches have been around forever, and when you think about food wedged between something starchy or bread-like, every culture has a version.
“Bread is considered the ′staff of life’ and the neat thing about bread is that it also makes a pretty tasty portable delivery system for getting other foods in your mouth, and people were using it that way long before the 4th Earl of Sandwich got hungry playing cards,” sandwich aficionado Jim Behymer from the Sandwich Tribunal told HuffPost.
Legend has it that the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu of England, popularized the sandwich in 1762 when he requested his meat between two slices of bread so that he could keep eating while on a late-night gambling streak. When others saw his snack of salt beef between two pieces of toast, they began to order “the same as Sandwich!” The rest is sandwich history.
But sandwiches have likely been part of humanity since the dawn of time ― certainly well before the earl’s midnight snack. For example, we know of the Passover sandwich created by Hillel the Elder in the 1st century and Medieval trenchers.
What did some of the first sandwiches taste like? I decided to find out.
Antiquarian bookseller Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Biddeford, Maine, helped me out with his wealth of sandwich-related resources. Armed with a couple of recipes from books in the shop, I set out to taste-test two sandwiches from the distant and not-so-distant past.
1801: Oyster Loaves
One of the first sandwich recipes ever printed ― in the 1801 edition of The Lady’s Assistant by Charlotte Mason, an English educator and “professed housekeeper” ― appears to be for oyster loaves. The recipe in this particular book has instructions for stewing oysters to fill little loaves that were similar to mini baguettes.
The recipe had evolved by the time Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife was printed in 1824. In that book, readers are instructed to empty the loaves and stew the oysters with the crumbs. This shows the recipe slowly changing into something that may have been a predecessor to the oyster po’boy.
As seen in the image below, the instructions were ... sparse.
How much cream? Should it be like a roux? How many oysters? I had a lot of questions, and many remain unanswered.
I got a dozen oysters that I shucked and strained, then added to a boiling mixture of cream, flour and butter. I had no idea what “cook till enough” meant, so I went with stirring until the oysters looked barely set. I split open little loaves and filled them with the creamed oysters.
White, gray and beige, the oyster loaves did not look appetizing. I began to consider alternate dinner options. But then my husband took a bite and said, “Wow, this is really good!” My daughter ate the oysters on the side and asked for more. I gingerly took a bite, cream sauce running everywhere, and was pleasantly surprised. It was salty, saucy and not bad. There was lots of cream left at the end that I later found myself dipping the rest of the bread in. I kind of grossed myself out but hey, it tasted good. However, I could see why frying the oysters became more popular, though. It was all a little mushy.
1929: Russian Club Sandwich
Sandwiches in the United States have a rich history that reflects American innovation and desire for grandeur.
“Americans took sandwiches and made them something else,” food historian Bee Wilson explains in her book, Sandwiches: A Global History. “Like skyscrapers, their construction was ambitiously and generously vertical.”
Meanwhile, she writes, British sandwiches “were very tiny, designed to be swallowed in a single bite. ... No longer a means to an end ... but a glorious and greedy end in themselves.”
So as a throwback to the glory days, I went for height with a Russian club sandwich. (Besides, the name is quite apt, given the current state of our political affairs.) Wilson describes the club as a towering sandwich of six bread layers that Florence Cowles created in 1929. It features, from bottom to top: cream cheese, jam, bacon or chicken, and alternating layers of lettuce, tomato and cucumber on buttered rounds of bread. Each piece of bread is cut into rounds between 1.5 inches and 4 inches in diameter. As I pull out my ruler to measure and trim, I realize cutting a perfect circle out of bread is really hard.
The book describes the sandwich as “a miniature course dinner,” and I decide to arrange my courses from sweet to savory. I carefully crown it with a slice of banana (which, yes, the recipe calls for). I’m pretty proud that the layers are not “topply,” as Cowles instructs to “avoid this if possible.”
The sandwich mostly tasted like a sweet and super buttery BLT. The layers were hard to get all in one go; it was probably pretty smart to build it with the sweet layers on bottom. This way, I never got tomato and jam in a single bite. That one bite was enough for me, though. My husband kept going back to it, commenting, “I kinda just want more.” My daughter picked off the bacon and left the rest. All in all, it was not as terrible as I thought it’d be.
What it means to make and eat a sandwich has changed over time. What hasn’t changed is that sandwiches ― whether stuffed with shellfish sauce or an intriguing combination of chicken and jam ― are a staple. As we appreciate their history, we can’t help but be curious about their future.