Serious Reads: Sandwich, by Bee Wilson

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

"This book provides a look at the sandwich's origins, as well as its interpretations across centuries and geographic boundaries."



Tips and tricks for making the best sandwiches at home.

I was intrigued by Sandwich: A Global History by Bee Wilson because of its subject matter—omnipresent and unassuming. The humble PB & J fueled me through most of elementary school, and my love of anything between slices of good bread has perpetuated. But what of this "global history" of the sandwich? I'd never given much thought to the cross-cultural elements of the dish.

This book provides a look at the sandwich's origins and its interpretation across centuries and geographic boundaries. It's part of the Edible Series, published by Reaktion Books. Each book in the series highlights an individual dish or ingredient in a palatable 100 or so pages. From pancakes to whiskey, the Series allows you to learn in depth about the history of numerous favorite foods.

In this volume, Wilson dedicates much time to considering the role of the Earl of Sandwich in branding the meat and bread combo as a "sandwich". She weighs evidence from 17th-century journals, colonial-era paintings, and scholarly works, finally concluding that indeed there is a good chance that the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, called for cold beef between slices of bread for dinner one fateful night in 1762. The nutritious, portable dish caught on with nobility and peasantry alike, soon spreading throughout England. Though the dish almost certainly existed before Montagu's request, it was only after his request that others began referring to it as a "sandwich".

The sandwich has been both high-brow and working-class throughout history. Penny sandwiches have long fueled day laborers, providing an on-the-go lunch that sustains until the next hot meal. Crustless tea sandwiches, on the other hand, are a staple of upper-class British life, supplementing the diet rather than forming its foundation. Nowadays, sandwiches are widely commercialized and available at virtually every cafe or food purveyor. From fine meats on artisan loaves to Uncrustables, sandwiches exist to suit every palate.

in a final section, Wilson discusses some more exotic sandwich options. We learn how a French baguette came to arrive in Indochina and become the base of the Banh mi. There is some discussion of the tradition of open-faced sandwiches in Norway, and the ever-growing global popularity of falafel. It is the current trend in countries including Korea and Japan to sandwich native ingredients like kimchi between slices of Western-style bread. And Wilson provides a number of sandwich recipes to round out the text.

The very back of the book yields a glossary of the numerous sandwiches in which every food-lover should be fluent. Muffaletta, toasties, croque-monsieur—oh my! And if you're one of those folks who likes to discard the crusts, well, throw 'em this way. They're my favorite part!

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.