Joan Russell: A Light Reflection On The History Of The Sandwich

Roundup: Talking About History

A popular tale says the first man to eat a sandwich was a gambler who lived in 18th-century England. John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, it was said, was so busy gambling he didn't have time to eat, so he would order his servant to make him a treat. The servant put beef between two slices of bread and gave it to his master. In reality, according to his biographer, the Earl of Sandwich was probably so busy working as a politician that he ate at his desk.

Today sandwiches are a staple in lunchboxes across America. Here's a little trivia about one of our favorite midday meals:

Sloppy Joe.

A form of the sloppy Joe sandwich probably originated in the 19th century. Hamburger meat was popular for cooking dinner because it was inexpensive and could be easily mixed with other ingredients (often fillers that could "stretch" the meat to feed more people). The sloppy Joe, also called a loose-meat sandwich, was served in restaurants in the 1930s and '40s. It was called sloppy because the meat falls off the bun and Joe because it's a typical American name. The sandwich is made with ground meat and tomato sauce mixed with other ingredients like onions. It's served on a soft hamburger roll.

One of America's most popular sandwiches is made with peanuts - the peanut butter sandwich. Peanut butter started to gain popularity at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and, about a decade later, at the St. Louis World's Fair. It was considered a delicacy at first, and it was served in New York's finest tearooms in the early 1900s.

Commercial brands of peanut butter were introduced in the 1920s and '30s. Peanut butter offered an inexpensive, high- protein alternative to meat. Both peanut butter and jelly appeared on US military menus in the 1940s, during World War II. Peanut butter and jelly sales soared. It's still a popular choice for kids today.

In the time of Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (1167-1227), Khan's army ate patties made of scraped lamb and mutton. The scraps of meat were shaped into patties and softened by placing them under saddles of the sturdy ponies the men rode. They were eaten raw because the men had little time to dismount and cook. When the Mongols invaded Moscow, the Russians adopted the raw-meat meal with the name "Steak Tartare." (Tartars was what they called the Mongols.) Russian chefs refined it with chopped onions and raw eggs.

In the 1600s, ships from Hamburg, Germany, visited Russian ports. The meat was brought back to Germany. By the 18th and 19th centuries, it had become known as Hamburg Steak. German immigrants brought their meat to America, where it was later featured on menus in New York.

There are different stories about when and where the first hamburger was served on a bun. One story says that in the late 19th century, Charlie Nagreen, or "Hamburger Charlie," of Seymour, Wis., sold hamburgers from his ox-drawn food stand. Louis Lassen of New Haven, Conn., also has been credited with serving beef patties, made from his leftover meat scraps, with toasted bread in the early 1900s. The sandwiches were said to be popular with workers on the go.

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