Born on Nov. 13, 1718, John Montagu was a British diplomat who received his education at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Before that, in 1729, as a 10-year-old boy, he succeeded his grandfather, Edward Montagu, as the Earl of Sandwich.
The title was created in 1660 in recognition of the achievements of Admiral Sir Edward Montagu, who later became Baron Montagu. His great-grandson John served as First Lord of the Admiralty and as Secretary of State for the Northern Department throughout his life and came to be remembered as the man who sponsored Captain James Cook’s exploration voyages, who in exchange named the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in honor of him. Apparently, he is also the man the famously convenient food is named after.
“Sandwich” has referred to meat (or anything of personal preference really) arranged in between slices of bread since the 18th century in Europe.
The practice of placing bread below or around food, or simply using it for scooping something up, has been found in countless cultures predating the 18th century.
Digging deep, the first written usage of the English word can be found in Edward Gibbon’s journal, who referred to “bits of cold meat” as a “Sandwich,” yet using it to describe the sandwich we all love today is found in the satirical travel book A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants, penned by the French travel writer and observer Pierre-Jean Grosley.
In this satire, Grosley wrote about John Montagu’s bad gambling habits, among his many other vices, describing him as a relentless gambler. If Montagu was on a streak, he would not leave the table for hours, eating only food brought on request in order to stay alive.
Oftentimes when hungry, he would order his valet to bring slices of meat tucked between two pieces of bread to his table, allowing him to continue playing cards and fill his stomach at the same time, without the need to use a fork. By doing so, he was keeping the cards clean, and not greasy as they inevitably would be if he was to eat the meat with his bare hands.
This habit came to be well known among his gambling friends, so very soon others began to order “the same as Sandwich,” thus giving birth to the “sandwich” much appreciated today.
This story is a bit debatable, considering that Grosley was taking a satirical stance on things when writing his memoirs. There is another story, though, found in the writings of Nicholas A. M. Rodger, Sandwich’s biographer. He states that the commitments Sandwich had to the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty, serving as the Secretary of State for the Northern Department in the government of George Grenville, meant that the most often than not, he had to eat at his working desk.
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In his views, the first “sandwich” and countless after it were probably eaten by the Earl at his work desk due to his lack of time to eat proper aristocratic meals. This theory is a more praise-worthy approach to things.