It’s the day after Thanksgiving, meaning that if you’re among the 65% of Americans who claim that eating leftovers is the best part of the holiday, then you might be thinking about (or making) the celebrated “pilgrim sandwich,” also known as the Thanksgiving Leftover Sandwich. But I ask you to tear your eyes off the glistening cranberries, the thyme-scented mashed potatoes, and the bounty of other leftovers. I ask you to consider the sandwich.
Pretty much everyone knows about John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was so absorbed in his gambling that he needed something he could eat without leaving his game. But sandwiches as a form go back to the 1st Century B.C.E., when the famed rabbi Hillel the Elder started a Passover custom of sandwiching a portion of the Paschal lamb and bitter herbs between two matzohs, based on a verse in the Book of Exodus.
Later, Medieval Europeans started putting food on bread out of necessity rather than spirituality. Much like the pie crusts of old, bread acted as dishes for Europeans in the Middle Ages. They called their thick chunks of stale bread “trenchers” and then piled them with meats, gravies, and other sauces. After the meal, the softened bread was either eaten or tossed to dogs or the poor.
So while the Earl of Sandwich didn’t invent the concept of using bread as a vehicle for other foods, he did lend it his name. However, up until the first written record of the word “sandwich” in 1762, the stack of bread and fillings was known, hilariously, as “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese.”
They made the leap across the pond, and by 1816, recipes appeared calling for fillings like fruit, shellfish, nuts, and mushrooms. By the turn of the century, sandwiches were differentiated based on their ingredients, like the double-decker club sandwich or the BLT.
One of the most important developments in modern sandwich history came in the late 1920s. In 1928, Otto Rohwedder built a loaf-at-a-time bread slicing machine. Later, bread slicers could wrap the loaves as well, making it possible to package and sell pre-sliced loaves of bread.
All this innovation culminated in 1930, when Wonder Bread started marketing their pre-sliced bread nation-wide. Kids could safely make their own sandwiches without having to use a bread knife, and the ease of the sandwich made them a fixture in American kitchens and lunchrooms across the country.
Speaking of fixtures in American food history…
I’ll let you get back to your turkey.
Not that you need any instruction, but here’s a Martha Stewart-approved leftover sandwich recipe for inspiration:
- Cranberry sauce
- Grainy mustard
- Sliced turkey
- Glazed pearl onions
Spread one half of a piece of baguette with cranberry sauce and the other with grainy mustard.
Layer with sliced turkey and glazed pearl onions.