More people work in the UK’s commercial sandwich industry than in agriculture. How did the nation’s snack of choice take over the world? Bee Wilson fills us in…
Few people try to tickle the taste buds of Michel Roux Jr on MasterChef with a humble sandwich, and a good old-fashioned doorstep sarnie is unlikely to feature in fine foodie magazines.
But something tasty slapped between two slices of bread is a staple lunchtime diet for many of us. So much so that we are each thought to consume around 200 of them every year. Consequently, the commercial sandwich industry in the UK now employs a colossal 330,000 people – more than the number working in agriculture.
Indeed, the sandwich may be our greatest culinary invention; it’s certainly our most successful food export. The world has quietly taken our favourite snack to its heart and re-fashioned it as panini and BLTs, the bocadillo of Spain and the chivito of Uruguay.
As a nation, we may not have the fussy insistence on fresh ingredients of the Italians or the sauce-making abilities of the French. But we are good structural engineers and the sandwich is a great piece of engineering, one forever associated with an impatient 18th-century British earl.
It seems pretty obvious, however, that John Montagu – the 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718- 1792) – was not the first person to eat meat and bread together. For centuries, people had constructed ad hoc sandwiches on their plates but it was Montagu who imperiously called for his meal to arrive ready-made.
The story goes that he was too engrossed in an all-night card game to leave the table to eat. Another version has sandwich busily working at his desk and needing something he could eat with a single hand.
This version has the ring of truth, firstly because Sandwich was not much of a gambler and secondly because sandwiches are the ultimate workaholic food. This hand-held fuel is eaten by lawyers and doctors, school children and their teachers, shop workers, call centre operatives and everyone else with little chance of a proper lunch break.
The British commercial sandwich market has grown 6 per cent in the last year. Jim Winship, director of the British Sandwich Association, says the growth has much to do with the economy climate.
“People are under pressure at work and feel they need something to eat at a desk without stopping,” he says.
Few foods are as portable. Compare and contrast the open sandwiches of Scandinavia – smorrebrod and the like, topped with smoked fish, herrings or pâté – which are far more complicated to carry around. In Norway, they have paper wrappings to keep the open sandwich safe in transit: a first layer of paper to protect the filling and a second layer to contain the bread.
The genius of the sandwich is that it can contain almost anything from the paper-thin cucumber slices of an aristocratic afternoon tea to a hearty wedge of left-over roast dinner with stuffing. In two slices of bread, it is possible to fashion a complete, meal with all the vitamins, protein and carbohydrate the health experts recommend.
However, not every sandwich is quite so wholesome: the jam butty probably has nutritionists choking on their crusts while Mrs Beeton suggested a sandwich for invalids filled with toast. That’s the glory of sandwiches – they can be posh (dainty triangles), fit for ordinary working families (baps and butties) or the food of leisure (picnics). They can be made from the finest ingredients – the Edwardian shooter’s sandwich contains a fillet steak encased in a whole loaf – or be thrown together with whatever’s in the fridge.
And for people who feel oppressed by conventional meals, sandwiches offer liberation.
In his book Family Britain, the social historian David Kynaston quoted a woman who became a widow in the 1970s: “At last! No more cooking. I can eat what I really like – sandwiches!”
For those of us who love sociable meals, there would be something sad about a life in which all you ate was sandwiches. But for the busy middle hours of the day, the sober individualism of the sandwich is often what is wanted. And an easy way to improve the working week is simply . . . better sandwiches.
Bee Wilson is an award-winning food writer and author of Sandwich: A Global History (Reaktion).