Everything you never knew you didn't know about sandwiches
In about 6,500 words, British writer Sam Knight, writing in the Guardian, has published an entertaining and engaging account of why (and what and how and where) that packaged sandwich in the grocery store came to be. Oh, and who made it happen. He throws in the geography, the history, the psychology, the nationality and the mentality of packaged sandwiches. He's got the industrial processes explained and he's got both sides of how sandwiches changed consumers and consumers changed sandwiches.
It's about as thorough a report as you will ever find about the lowly packaged sandwich.
Don't worry, there is nothing ideological about it, given that it's published in the Guardian. Knight probably could only publish it there because it's one of the few papers that allows long, long, looong format stories, given the proclivities of leftists. But this story is not at all leftwing, not even a little.
Since I remember buying some of those sandwiches when I lived in England as a student in 1982, it's fun to learn I was in on the beginnings of a revolution as I counted out my 43p for after inspecting the cosmetics counter and the clothes that cost too much on my meagre student budget. I remember I liked the cucumber salmon in the kiosk near the revolving doors, not quite a typical American flavor combination at the time, and so, still sufficiently exotic:
The invention of the chilled packaged sandwich, an accessory of modern British life which is so influential, so multifarious and so close to hand that you are probably eating one right now, took place exactly 37 years ago. Like many things to do with the sandwich, this might seem, at first glance, to be improbable. But it is true. In the spring of 1980, Marks & Spencer, the nation’s most powerful department store, began selling packaged sandwiches out on the shop floor. Nothing terribly fancy. Salmon and cucumber. Egg and cress. Triangles of white bread in plastic cartons, in the food aisles, along with everything else. Prices started at 43p. Looking upon the nation’s £8bn-a-year sandwich industrial complex in 2017, it seems inconceivable that this had not been tried before, but it hadn’t.
And it was a revolution, for more than just students:
Without being designed to do so, the packaged sandwich spoke to a new way of living and working. Within a year, demand was so strong that M&S approached three suppliers to industrialise the process. (One of the world’s first sandwich factories was a temporary wooden hut inside the Telfer’s meat pie factory in Northampton.) In 1983, Margaret Thatcher visited the company’s flagship store in Marble Arch and pronounced the prawn mayonnaise delicious.
It called to mind the hazily remembered origins of the sandwich, from the Earl of Sandwich, who asked a servant to bring him two slices of bread with meat inside because he was so busy gambling or something. Knight of course, tells the more refined and historically sharpened tale. Knight writes.
The first definite sandwich sighting occurs in the diaries of Edward Gibbon, who dined at the Cocoa Tree club, on the corner of St James Street and Pall Mall in London on the evening of 24 November 1762. “That respectable body affords every evening a sight truly English,” he wrote. “Twenty or thirty of the first men in the kingdom … supping at little tables … upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich.” A few years later, a French travel writer, Pierre-Jean Grosley, supplied the myth – beloved by marketing people ever since – that the Earl demanded “a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread,” to keep him going through a 24-hour gambling binge. This virtuoso piece of snacking secured his fame.
If you have time, read the whole thing, it won't disappoint.