FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Sandwich Stories

Food Fit for an Earl

It's often interesting to discover how particular foods have received their names. Take the sandwich, for example. The concept of a sandwich is nothing new. Meals have been consumed between slices of bread or rolled in flatbread for thousands of years -- in some Middle Eastern and Near Eastern countries bread is the sole utensil in which to eat with -- but it took a card game for this method of eating to be dubbed "sandwich."

In 1762 there was an English politician named John Montagu who -- like many Englishman -- enjoyed roast beef as his evening meal; he also held the title of the Earl of Sandwich, which made reference to the small and historic English town of Sandwich. This particular Earl also had a certain penchant for a good game of cards now and again -- and again and again. In fact, he enjoyed his card games so much that they sometimes lasted twenty-four hours, and he didn't like to stop the game for anything -- not even to eat.

It was during one of these marathon games that John Montagu was eating his dinner (as was his practice). Not wanting to set down his cards he took the beef off his plate and placed it between two slices of bread, thus keeping a hand free to play the game. It sounds as if good ol' John was a bit of an obsessive compulsive, or at least a creature of habit, and acting as such he suggested that his servant make his meals like this often, so often, in fact, that his friends began to call his meals a "sandwich." Interestingly, John Montagu also had an investment in exploration and ultimately sponsored the voyages of Captain James Cook. And in 1778 Captain Cook named a series of small South Pacific islands after the Earl, calling them The Sandwich Islands. Today, of course, these islands are known as Hawaii.

John Montagu was the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the first (Edward Montagu) was actually intended to be the Earl of Portsmouth but the title was apparently changed in tribute to the town of Sandwich because the fleet of ships he was commanding were moored just off its coast. This act of compliment started not only a string of "sandwich earls," instead of portsmouths, but also changed the name of a meal that happened generations later, a name that would become a household word and carry on for centuries.

Not all sandwiches received their names in such a grand manner, or from a noble-person. The dagwood, for example, took its name from the cartoon character in the comic strip Blondie. The taco is so named simply because the Spanish word refers to a long narrow shape (pool queues and women’s high-heeled shoes can also be referred to as tacos in Spanish). The hearty muffuletta sandwich of New Orleans carries a couple theories of origination. Some say it's named after an Italian immigrant who began serving his favorite concoction in the Crescent City around 1900. But chef and culinary historian John Folse speculates that it began as a humble snack invented by the Italian immigrants who worked the markets in New Orleans. They collected broken olives found at the bottom of the barrels (olive salad is the base to muffuletta), and stuffed them into round loaves of bread, which were called "muffs." Whichever the origin, muffulettas are delicious and best made in the traditional fashion -- one large sandwich cut into single servings. To this day tourists and locals alike throng to the Central Grocery on Decatur Street -- which claims to be the originator of the muffuletta -- for some of the best muffulettas in the country.

The club sandwich is said to be named simply because of its popularity at resorts and country clubs -- it was elegant and decadent enough to be served to the financially privileged. In its original form it consisted of the classic combination of bacon, lettuce and tomato, with a third slice of bread and sliced chicken breast. In the mid-1980's the club sandwich was brought to a new level of decadence -- Chef Anne Rozenwieg began serving a lobster club sandwich at her restaurant, Arcadia, located on the upper west side of Manhattan. The sandwich consists of grilled and chilled lobster tossed with house-made lemon mayonnaise and layered between slices of buttery fresh-made brioche with mesclun lettuce, organic tomatoes and crisp bacon. The cost: $25.00. The sandwich was an instant success, to such an extent that when chef Rozenwieg opened her second restaurant she named it aptly after her famous creation, calling it "The Lobster Club."

When it comes to America's favorites, though, two of the most humble sandwiches are at the top of the list. The hamburger leads the pack; entire restaurant chains have been founded on it. Many believe that the hamburger made its first appearance as a sandwich at the world's fair in St. Louis in 1904. Prior, the hamburger was served -- sans bun -- as an entree and was called Hamburger Steak; it was named after the German city of Hamburg. A close second to the hamburger is the simple bologna sandwich. According to the web site of one major food service company 2.19 billion sandwiches are consumed each year with their bologna, that translates to 6 million sandwiches a day. That is a lot of bologna.

As the fourth Earl of Sandwich knew, sandwiches can be a complete and filling meal for lunch or dinner, and when it comes to making them the possibilities are endless. Who knows, maybe the next time you're making your favorite sandwich combination it may be good enough to carry your name and withstand the test of time.

Serves 8
1 large round loaf Italian bread, approximately 10" across (recipe follows)
2 cups olive salad (recipe follows)
1/2 pound Genoa salami
1/2 pound Capocollo ham
1/2 pound Provolone cheese

Split the bread across, forming a top and a bottom. Drizzle both the top and the bottom with some of the liquid from the olive salad. Layer the bottom with the salami, capocollo ham and Provolone cheese; spread the olive salad across the top of the meats and cheese. Place the top half of the bread on the sandwich and cut into 8 equal pieces.

Italian Bread
Yield: 1 round loaf
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Combine the warm water and yeast in a medium bowl and set the bowl aside until the yeast becomes active and frothy, about 10 minutes. Add the salt and oil; stir to combine.

Add the flour and stir it into the liquid. Once the dough is thick enough to handle turn out onto a work surface. Knead the dough for about 10-12 minutes by hand, or alternately, with the use of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook for 8 minutes. . The dough will become smooth and supple.

Place the dough in a clean bowl that is large enough to allow it to rise, and set the bowl in a warm draft free area for 1 hour. Within an hour the dough will double in size. For a more fla-vorful bread punch the dough down and allow it to rise again, a second rise will take an additional 30 minutes. After the dough has risen once or twice punch it down again and turn it out onto a work surface. Shape the bread into a large and somewhat flat-round loaf that measures approximately 10 inches across. Sprinkle the cornmeal across a baking sheet and place the bread onto the baking sheet. Sprinkle the sesame seeds on the bread, loosely cover it with plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 1 hour.
Preheat an oven to 375F.

Arrange two racks in the preheated oven: one set in the lowest setting, the other in the middle. On the lower rack place a small pan of warm water. Gently place the bread onto the middle rack and bake it for approximately 40 minutes. To check for doneness look for a golden brown crust; it will sound hollow when lifted off the pan and gently tapped on the bottom. After removing the bread from the oven remove it from the baking tray and place it on a wire cooling rack. Allow the bread to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing.

Olive Salad
Yield: 2 cups
1 medium red pepper, roast and diced
3/4 cup chopped green olives
1/2 cup chopped black olives
1/4 cup minced celery
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced basil
6 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl and allow the flavors to mingle for at least 1 hour prior to serving.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.