This man is (so it seems) responsible for about 90% of all productivity I have witnessed in the UK to date. Single-handedly, although sometimes with two hands I have no doubt, he has provided the means to keep this proud and hungry country from collapsing in a heap and admitting defeat. With a stroke of genius second only to the discovery of coffee as a morning beverage, he revolutionised and redefined the British love affair with lunch. Unintentionally, I suspect, but still the result has been the same.
May I introduce John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Whether it was to fuel his gambling parties, sustain his work or some other reason, the simple idea of putting something edible between two slices of bread has changed the British dining habits beyond recognition
It has been a source of constant amazement to me since my return to see exactly how many sandwich shops now exist in the UK. There are the old stalwarts that I remember from my teenage years, which have been providing heaped fillings and choices of bread for decades (we are looking at you Breadline Sandwich Bar). There are the chain sandwich bars that were starting to appear and proliferate when I left the UK in 2000 – and all with fancy-sounding French names to fool us into thinking that we were eating quality foreign food. No such luck. We were still eating our humble sandwich.
Now, there are stand-alone gourmet sandwich bars; different supermarket ranges of sandwiches; various gourmet sandwiches in the gourmet sandwich shops and gourmet fillings with gourmet breads kind of sandwich shops. Indeed, it causes people to look twice if they see the word gourmet applied to any food type other than sandwiches.
The other evening, at a wedding dinner, I had the pleasure of sitting opposite a charming young lawyer who spent about 5 minutes talking about the sandwich she normally bought for lunch and the new sandwich she had tried that day. Fillings were listed, quantities quantified and a sense of anticipation built, wondering what sandwich it would be the day after for lunch. She had tried a new sandwich and she liked it.
There is indeed a palpable sense and deep-seated fear that one day there will be a run on bread and sandwich fillings and the whole British business world will grind to a halt. If such a horror did happen then, as a rough calculation, one of the worst effects would be that at least £1 billion would be lost from the tourist industry for no other reason than school parties from overseas being unable to buy their sandwich that day.
But only at lunchtime.
And there is the question. Why are sandwiches – so revered and available in such mind boggling varieties – a lunch-only item? Outside of the burger, which is of course a type of sandwich, most people would feel affronted to arrive for dinner and be given a sandwich. Excuses are made if a quick sandwich is thrown together for a TV supper or a friend turns up to find us eating a sandwich, alone at home, after 6pm. Given the status to which the simple sandwich has been elevated surely we should be free to enjoy them at any time of the day – gourmet dinner sandwiches with wagyu beef, or some such celebrity chef creation tickling our collective British-buttied taste buds.
Should we be out there marching under “Sandwiches for Supper” banners or demanding our rights with slogans declaring things are “Better Between Bread”? Will the nation rise to declare “Sandwich Sustainability” as a British right? I doubt it, but it does seem a little unfair that such a national treasure is relegated to one specific mealtime or the risk of facing culinary shame and discrimination. Even the date chosen for National Sandwich Day, 3rd November, chosen apparently because it was the birthdate of our old friend John Montagu is incorrect by 10 days. He was actually born on 13th November.
We lavish more care on our sandwiches than on our celebration of them, it seems, to our national shame. Maybe the tour groups of school kids have got this one right – the ubiquitous sandwich is something to celebrate, or at least make a compulsory part of an organised group tour for visiting tourists. It would help boost the British coffers after all.