As 2013 comes to a close, now is the time to sit back and reflect on the year that was: the triumphs, the failures, the people we met, the friends we made, and, most importantly, the sandwiches we encountered. We came across plenty on our hunt for Sandwiches of the Week, our regular column, and we’ve compiled them all into one drool-worthy slideshow.
2013: The Year in Sandwiches (Slideshow)
We recently awarded 2013 Sandwich of the Year to the lobster roll at Los Angeles newcomer Hinoki & the Bird, a marvel for the senses: a house-baked roll dyed jet-black by Japanese charcoal, filled with a heaping portion of fresh lobster tossed with a Thai green curry aioli, topped with Thai basil. This beauty pretty much sums up the year in sandwiches: restrained, yet daring; familiar, yet unique; comfortable, yet slightly puzzling; and, above all, delicious.
This year, we discovered sandwiches like the Frita Caballo at Miami’s El Mago de las Fritas, a smashed burger topped with ketchup, fried onions, fried potato sticks, a fried egg, and cheese, that’s become a local legend. Then there was The Maple at Portland’s Meat Cheese Bread, essentially two slices of bread pudding with homemade sausage, spicy Cheddar, and shaved fennel in the middle. And who can forget the Shrimp Caminada po'boy from New Orleans’ Grand Isle, with sautéed shrimp, cabbage-carrot slaw, and rice-wine vinegar? It seems like no matter where you turn, a crazy-good sandwich is there for the taking.
So come with us on a journey through a year’s worth of stellar and delicious sandwiches. Don’t forget to bring your appetite! And check out our roundup of the year in sandwiches from 2012 and from 2011 after you're finished.
Discover the History of the Sandwich
On her website ToriAvey.com, Tori Avey explores the story behind the food — why we eat what we eat, how the recipes of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterdays recipes can inspire us in the kitchen today. Learn more about Tori and The History Kitchen.
You know you’ve got a favorite one. The one that makes your stomach growl just looking at it. The one that you’d like to sink your teeth into. Maybe it’s a hot pastrami on rye with spicy mustard, or perhaps a grilled cheese is more your style. Or maybe you can’t resist a French Dip with tender, juicy meat on a French roll — yeah, THAT one. Americans eat close to 200 sandwiches per year on average, so chances are you have a favorite of your own. Whatever sandwich happens to float your boat, the basic components are bound to be the same. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sandwich as “an item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with a filling between them, eaten as a light meal.” Seems like a simple enough concept. So, who came up with this innovative way of serving food? While I’m sure the Earl of Sandwich would like all the credit, the true history of the sandwich goes back much further.
Most of us have heard of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, otherwise known as John Montagu. In the late 1700’s, French writer Pierre-Jean Grosley recounted his observations of English life in a book called Londres (translated to English under the name A Tour to London). In the book, a few lines were written that forever tied this food invention to the Earl of Sandwich:
A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.
While it is not clear if this anecdote is completely true, the book gained popularity and the story took hold. Soon the name was official — when you ate two pieces of bread with something in the middle, you were eating a “sandwich.””
Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is credited with being the first person to write down the word “sandwich” using its modern culinary context. On November 24, 1762, he wrote in his journal:
That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.
During the time this journal entry was written, Gibbon was First Lord of the Admiralty. The Earl of Sandwich, Montagu, was entrenched in London’s social scene. It’s possible that Montagu introduced the sandwich concept to his high society London friends, including Gibbon, who helped it to gain quick notoriety. In 1773, the word sandwich was used in a recipe for the first time, in Charlotte Mason’s cookbook, titled (now, stay with me here) The Lady’s assistant for regulating and supplying her table: Being a Complete System of Cookery, Containing One Hundred and Fifty Select Bills of Fare. That’s the condensed version of the title, if you can believe it.
Though the Earl of Sandwich (or, perhaps, his cook) deserves credit for helping sandwiches gain a name and popularity, variations of the concept have been around for centuries. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when or where they first appeared. Farm laborers in rural France had been eating meat between sliced bread long before it had a name, though the sandwich likely started even earlier than that. The earliest recognizable form of a sandwich may be the Korech or “Hillel sandwich” that is eaten during Jewish Passover. Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader and rabbi who lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod (circa 110 BC), first suggested eating bitter herbs inside unleavened matzo bread. The herbs symbolized the bitterness of slavery, and the bread resembled the flatbreads made in haste by the ancient Israelites as they fled Egypt. Hillel’s simple recommendation of sandwiching the two foods together may indicate that this was already a popular way of serving food in the Middle East.
Sandwiches first appeared in American cookbooks in 1816. The fillings were no longer limited to cold meat, as recipes called for a variety of things, including cheese, fruit, shellfish, nuts and mushrooms. The years following the Civil War saw an increase in sandwich consumption, and they could be found anywhere from high-class luncheons to the taverns of the working class. By the end of the 19th century, sandwiches earned new names for their many different forms, like the triple-layered “club sandwich” and the corned beef “Reuben.””
In the late 1920s, when Gustav Papendick invented a way to slice and package bread, sandwiches found a new audience. Mothers could easily assemble a sandwich without the need to slice their bread, and children could safely make their own lunches without the use of a knife. The portability and ease of sandwiches caught on with families, and the sandwich became a lunchroom staple.
The Earl of Sandwich’s legacy lives on today in more than just the name. John Montagu’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandson Orlando Montagu founded a chain of sandwich restaurants called–what else?–Earl of Sandwich. The menu features an homage to the Earl’s first, most famous sandwich called the “Original 1762.” The sandwich includes hot roast beef, sharp cheddar, and creamy horseradish sauce served on warm bread.
Sandwiches are now popular all over the world, and it seems like every region has their own take on the concept. In Cuba, restaurants serve ham and cheese on Cuban bread. In the Middle East, falafel or shawarma in a pita pocket is the fast food of choice. In France, a Croque Monsieur or Croque Madame can be found in most cafes. In Italy, simple and rustic panino sandwiches are the norm. In New York, pastrami on rye is king, though the Reuben takes a close second. In Philadelphia, it’s all about the cheesesteak. Sandwiches come in endless varieties, making them one of the most popular foods worldwide.
So come on, fess up! What’s your favorite type of sandwich?
The Plant Based Sandwiches List
This easy veggie-loaded sandwich is one of my favorite sandwich recipes on the blog. It has a lovely dressing and simple fresh flavours that make it satisfying but won’t leave you feeling overly stuffed.
Vegan BLT Sandwich from Minimalist Baker
This mouthwatering twist on a classic BLT sandwich uses eggplant transformed into a delicious plant-based bacon that goes wonderfully with lettuce and tomato. A great option for a plant-based bacon that isn’t made from tofu or tempeh!
This plant based breakfast sandwich uses flavourful scrambled tofu with a delicious mix of spices on gluten free English muffins. Along with avocado, micro greens, and a spicy vegan mayo this sandwich would definitely make for a delicious morning!
Skip the sandwich bread and go with a delicious naan (gluten free if needed) for this tasty “naan-which” by the oh, so talented Pinch of Yum filled with an easy homemade falafel, magic green sauce made with avocado, and roasted veggies.
How many colourful, vibrant veggies can you actually stuff into a plant based sandwich? Let this recipe show you! This ultimate veggie sandwich is packed to the brim with vegetables and the classic condiments for extra flavour!
A perfect little plant based twist on a classic tuna sandwich, one of my favourites, this recipe uses protein-packed chickpeas in the place of tuna along with tahini, lemon, and all the right veggies!
Vegetarian Banh Mi Sandwich from Lemons and Anchovies
Banh mi sandwiches have a special place in my heart as they are just so unique and flavourful and not something you see on most sandwich menus. This plant based take on Banh mi has all the classic flavours with a protein swap for tofu marinated in lemongrass, garlic, and soy. Yum!
The star of this tasty club sandwich is the marinated portobello mushrooms that have a hearty consistency and really add the meatless “meat” to this recipe. Along with the mushroom is avocado, radish, lettuce, and tomato. Delish.
Vegan Buffalo Tofu Chicken Sandwich from This Vibrant World
If you are in the mood for something saucy and spicy, this buffalo plant based sandwich is definitely a must. The tofu is smothered in a delicious homemade buffalo sauce, free of any questionable ingredients, and served simply on fresh bread along with spinach and cherry tomatoes.
Heirloom Avocado Bagelwhiches from How Sweet Eats
I have to admit, if I had to choose between sliced bread or a bagel for a sandwich, I’d go with the bagel every time! Bagelwhiches take things a notch up in my opinion and these delicious heirloom avocado bagelwhiches from How Sweet Eats look incredible made with veggie cream cheese (swap for dairy free cream cheese if needed), avocado, heirloom tomatoes, chives, and sprouts.
To end this mouthwatering list of plant based sandwiches is a sweet option that would be incredible for camping or summertime around a fire. This chocolate bananas foster sandwich is made with dairy free chocolate ganache (um, yum!!), bananas, and a healthier caramel sauce. Perfection!
I hope you have thoroughly enjoyed this list of plant based sandwiches and feel inspired to make at least a few over the coming weeks. Lunchtime has officially been taken up a level! Be sure to pin the photo below to save this roundup for later and of course, share the love! So…what’s your favourite plant based sandwich? Tell me about it in the comments!
Top 10 Recipes of 2013
Can’t believe it’s already time for the New Year! This year has been a big one in our household! We went through IVF in January and were blessed beyond measure by our pregnancy and the birth of our daughter Sophie!! She is God’s greatest gift and such a miracle! I was also blessed to be able to attend Food Blog Forum in Disney World and we turned it into a mini vacation for us! And we fed a giraffe at the zoo & went on our babymoon to Antigua! Such a fun year! Can’t wait to see what 2014 holds! I pray you all have a blessed New Year!
I always like to reflect on the past year and see what recipes were your favorites. I based it on page views and have listed your Top 10 favorites below. Looks like you all like comfort food and chocolate, haha! I must say I do too!! What’s so funny and so neat is that most all of these were favorites of mine too! I started with #10 and counted down to #1. Did your favorite make the list?
Stay tuned for my personal favorites from this past year coming later this week!
Alternatively titled: Soup, but make it a meal. That is to say, Smoked Sausage, White Bean and Spinach Soup is extremely hearty and cozy since it’s packed with vegetables, beans, and smoked sausage. It’s also packed with flavor thanks to two must-have ingredients.
Afternoon Tea Recipes
I love afternoon tea &ndash it&rsquos one of those quintessential British traditions, and I&rsquom all about keeping traditions alive! We went for afternoon tea in London a couple of years ago for our wedding anniversary, and had a wonderful time.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o&rsquoclock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o&rsquoclock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her. &ndash Historic UK
Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam (my favourite!), as well as tasty cakes and pastries. And of course, this wouldn&rsquot be complete without a pot of freshly brewed tea!
I&rsquove rounded up a selection of recipes &ndash from my own blog, as well as from some fabulous bloggers, that you can prepare at home for afternoon tea. I&rsquom sure there will be something here to tickle your taste buds. And if you&rsquore not a baker or cake maker, don&rsquot forget, it doesn&rsquot hurt to buy some delicious treats from the shops to serve for this afternoon treat! Links open in new window/tab.
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons finely grated carrot
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 10 large hard-cooked eggs, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons minced celery
- 1 tablespoon minced green bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped tarragon
- 1 tablespoon snipped chives
- 3 tablespoons salted roasted sunflower seeds or toasted pine nuts, plus more for garnish
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 8 slices of Pullman bread, toasted
- Sunflower sprouts, for garnish
In a large bowl, whisk the mayonnaise with the carrot, vinegar and mustard. Fold in the chopped eggs, celery, bell pepper, parsley, tarragon, chives and the 3 tablespoons of sunflower seeds. Season with salt, pepper and Tabasco.
Spoon the egg salad on half of the toasts. Garnish with sunflower sprouts and sunflower seeds. Close the sandwiches and serve.
Afternoon Children’s Tea Party Menu
When using imagination, a child’s tea party is not limited to all girls. A children’s tea can be a teaching experience in a social setting. Young boys and girls alike can learn the etiquette of table manners and conversation. A theme tea can be the springboard to a history lesson or even encourage kindness and the responsibility of community volunteerism. Including children in a holiday tea can bind the traditions from one generation to another. The recipes may be enjoyed by the child in everyone.
Valentine’s Day – Craft a card
Easter – Color eggs
Christmas – Write a letter to Santa trim the tree
Nutcracker Suite – Learn about the ballet
Birthday Party Tea
Etiquette Tea – Learn table manners and conversation.
Teddy Bear and Doll Tea – Bring your favorite bear or doll to join you for tea and also bring a toy to donate to a charity.
Welcome Tea – Introduce a new schoolmate to others.
Storybook Reading Tea – Bring your favorite book to tea.
Comic Book Character Tea
Dress Up Tea
Princess and Pirates Tea
ART – decorate a picture frame, notebook cover, and/or hat
FOOD – Sandwich, Cookie, and Cupcake Decorating
Tea Pots – Hats – Story Books – Dolls – Small Toys – Flowers in Teacups – Balloons
Children’s Afternoon Tea Party Menu
Plan your menu keeping in mind that children can be finicky eaters and others may have food allergies.
The usual custom is to either serve three or four selections for both the sandwich and sweet courses. Do balance the menu to include different flavors and textures. Caffeinated tea for children is not recommended. However, there are many other beverage alternatives that may be substituted and served in a teacup. Cookies cutters will come in handy to create various shapes for sandwiches and sweets.
Decorative garnishes: colored sprinkles, sanding sugar, toasted nuts, shredded coconut flakes, food coloring, raisins, and assorted candies.
Sandwiches and Savory Selections:
Do not duplicate breads. Place your fillings on white, rye, whole wheat, croissants, mini sliders, raisin bread, pita, or any other bread of your choice. Unless you are serving a large selection, try not to serve two cheese spreads on the same menu.
Nutella Spread and Banana
Sugar Cookies – Comic Tea Sweets and Teacup Cookies
Photo by Ellen Easton ©2012 All Rights Reserved.
Photo by Ellen Easton ©2012 All Rights Reserved.
Cream Puffs with Orange Cream
Parfait – Creme Brulee, sherbet or Ice Cream
Photo by Ellen Easton ©2012 All Rights Reserved.
Sorbet Balls in Chocolate Bowls with Mini Fruit Bites and Strawberry Sauce
Fruit and Melon Ball Kabobs with Mini Marshmallows
Apple in Caramel Sauce or Mini Caramel Lady Apple
Check out more of Ellen Easton’s Tea Travels™ articles and recipes. Learn about the History of English High Tea and more delicious Afternoon Tea Recipes.
TEA TRAVELS™ – Wishing You Happy TEA TRAVELS!™ Tea is the luxury everyone can afford!™ and Good $ense for $uccess are the trademarked property of Ellen Easton/ RED WAGON PRESS
Ellen Easton, author of Afternoon Tea
Tips, Terms and Traditions (RED WAGON PRESS), a lifestyle and etiquette industry leader, keynote speaker and product spokesperson, is a hospitality, design, and retail consultant whose clients have included The Waldorf=Astoria, Plaza Hotels and Bergdorf Goodman. Easton’s family traces their tea roots to the early 1800s, when ancestors first introduced tea plants from India and China to the Colony of Ceylon, thus building one of the largest and best cultivated tea estates on the island.
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Each 5 x 7 book is $20 postpaid Continental USA only. Wholesale and fundraising accounts welcome. Include name, address, zip code, and phone number for shipping. All Sales Final. Check or MO order payable to: RED WAGON PRESS, 45 East 89th Street, STE. 20A, New York, NY 10128-1256. All inquires to [email protected]
AFTERNOON TEA…TIPS, TERMS and TRADITIONS
72 pages of how to’s, 27 photos, history, etiquette and FAQ about afternoon tea, serving styles and more.
TEA TRAVELS™ – FOR THE HOLIDAYS
64 pages, 21 color photos. A complete holiday menu includes 25 easy to prepare recipes theme teas, decorating & gift ideas invitation template and secret sources.
How the sandwich consumed Britain
T he 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. Britain in 1980 was a land of formica counters, fluorescent lighting and lunches under gravy. Sandwiches were thrown together from leftovers at home, constructed in front of you in a smoky cafe, or something sad and curled beneath the glass in a British Rail canteen. When I spoke recently to Andrew Mackenzie, who used to run the food department at M&S’s Edinburgh store – one of the first five branches to stock the new, smart, ready-made sandwiches – he struggled to convey the lost novelty of it all. “You’ve got to bear in mind,” he said. “It didn’t exist, the idea.”
If anything, it seemed outlandish. Who would pay for something they could just as easily make at home? “We all thought at the time it was a bit ridiculous,” said Mackenzie. But following orders from head office, he turned a stockroom into a mini production line, with stainless steel surfaces and an early buttering machine. The first M&S sandwiches were made by shop staff in improvised kitchens and canteens. Prawns defrosted on trays overnight, and a team of five came in before dawn to start work on the day’s order.
And, oh, they sold. They sold so fast that the sandwich experiment spread from five stores to 25, and then 105. Soon, Mackenzie was hiring more sandwich makers in Edinburgh. In the Croydon branch, a crew of seven was making a hundred sandwiches an hour. The first official M&S sandwich was salmon and tomato, but in truth it was a free-for-all. They sold so fast that staff made them out of whatever was lying around. In Cambridge, they made pilchard sandwiches, and people wanted those, too.
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.
Every supermarket jumped on the trend. Up and down the country, chefs and bakers and assorted wheeler-dealers stopped whatever they were doing and started making sandwiches on industrial estates. The sandwich stopped being an afterthought, or a snack bought out of despair, and became the fuel of a dynamic, go-getting existence. “At Amstrad the staff start early and finish late. Nobody takes lunches – they may get a sandwich slung on their desk,” Alan Sugar told an audience at City University in 1987. “There’s no small-talk. It’s all action.” By 1990, the British sandwich industry was worth £1bn.
A young economics graduate named Roger Whiteside was in charge of the M&S sandwich department by then. As a young buyer, Whiteside had come up with the idea of a set of four peeled oranges, to save customers time. He had read that apartments were being built in New York without kitchens, and he had a sense of where things were going. “Once you are time-strapped and you have got cash, the first thing you do is get food made for you,” he told me. “Who is going to cook unless you are a hobbyist?”
In the sandwich department, he commissioned new prototypes every week, and devised an ultimately impractical scheme to bake baguettes in west London each morning and deliver them, still crusty, to stores around the capital. Baguettes go soft when they are refrigerated – one of a surprising number of technical challenges posed by sandwiches. Whiteside immersed himself in questions of “carriers” (bread), “barriers” (butter, mayonnaise), “inclusions” (things within the bread), “proteins” (tuna, chicken, bacon) until they bordered on the philosophical. “What is more important, the carrier or the filling?” he wondered. “How many tiers of price do you offer in prawn? How much stimulation do people need?”
In the early 90s, Whiteside developed M&S’s first dedicated “food to go” section, with its own tills and checkouts, in Manchester. The innovation prefigured the layout of most contemporary supermarkets, and was fabulously successful. But it wasn’t successful enough for Whiteside. He didn’t understand why absolutely everyone in Manchester city centre wasn’t coming in to M&S for their lunch.
One day, he went into a branch of Boots on the other side of the street. Like almost every major retail chain, the pharmacy had followed M&S into the sandwich business. (Boots established the country’s first national distribution system – selling the same sandwiches in its all branches – in 1985, and pioneered the meal deal.) But Whiteside was convinced that its sandwiches weren’t as good as M&S’s, and that most customers knew that, too. He confronted the lunchtime queue in Boots and asked people why they weren’t coming to his store. “They said: ‘Well, I am not crossing the road’,” he recalled.
The answer struck Whiteside with great force. Mass-producing a meal that you could, if necessary, rip open and consume in the street was transforming people’s behaviour. “Instant gratification and total convenience and delivery,” Whiteside said. “If you are not there, they are not going looking for you.” He returned from Manchester and tried to persuade M&S to open hundreds of standalone sandwich shops in London. “It was so obviously an opportunity.” M&S didn’t go for the idea, but Whiteside was convinced that the future would belong to whoever was selling on every corner. He saw Pret and Starbucks and Costa and Subway coming a mile off. During the 1990s, the sandwich industry trebled in size. By the end of the 20th century, more people in Britain were making and selling sandwiches than working in agriculture.
I f you have been eating a packaged sandwich while reading this, you will have probably finished it by now. One industry estimate says that, on average, they take 3.5 minutes to consume. But no one really knows, because no one pays attention. One of the great strengths of the sandwich over the centuries has been how naturally it grafts on to our lives, enabling us to walk, read, take the bus, work, dream and scan our devices at the same time as feeding ourselves with the aid of a few small rotational gestures of wrist and fingers. The pinch at the corner. The sweep of the crumbs.
But just because something seems simple, or intuitive, doesn’t mean that it is. The rise of the British chilled sandwich over the last 40 years has been a deliberate, astonishing and almost insanely labour-intensive achievement. The careers of men and women like Roger Whiteside have taken the form of a million incremental steps: of searching for less soggy tomatoes and ways to crispify bacon of profound investigations into the molecular structure of bread and the compressional properties of salad. In the trade, the small gaps that can occur within the curves of iceberg lettuce leaves – creating air pockets – are sometimes known as “goblin caves”. The unfortunate phenomenon of a filling slumping toward the bottom of a sandwich box, known as a skillet, is “the drop”. Obsessed by perfection and market share, the sandwich world is, unsurprisingly, one beset by conditions of permanent and ruthless competition. Every week, rival sandwich developers from the big players buy each others’ products, take them apart, weigh the ingredients, and put them back together again. “It is an absolute passion,” one former M&S supplier told me. “For everybody. It has to be.”
The homeliness of the sandwich has been able to mask its extraordinary effectiveness as a commercial product. In 1851, the Victorian social commentator Henry Mayhew calculated that 436,800 sandwiches, all of them ham, were sold on the streets of London each year. That might sound a lot, but Sainsbury’s, which currently accounts for around 4% of the UK “food to go” market, now sells that number every 36 hours. “It is sometimes hard to tell how much has changed with our sandwich consumption, because we feel really nostalgic towards them,” Bee Wilson, the food writer, told me. “But actually, eating sandwiches five days a week, as lots of people do now, or even seven days a week – that is what has changed. They have invaded every area of our lives.”
And yet the sandwich is not satisfied. You might think that, in a nation that buys around 4bn a year, and in which you have been feeling better since you stopped eating so much bread, that the market might be saturated, or even falling off a little. But that is not the case. According to the British Sandwich Association, the number grows at a steady 2% – or 80 million sandwiches – each year. The sandwich remains the engine of the UK’s £20bn food-to-go industry, which is the largest and most advanced in Europe, and a source of great pride to the people who work in it. “We are light years ahead of the rest of the world,” Jim Winship, the head of the BSA, told me.
British sandwich-makers are sought-after across Europe, and invited to places like Russia and the Middle East to advise on everything from packaging and production lines to “mouth feel” and cress. “In Saudi Arabia they absolutely love the story of the Earl, the scoundrel,” one factory owner told me. And during weeks of reporting for this article, I didn’t come across one person who doubted that the long boom would continue for years to come. “It’s big. We all do it. And we do it a lot, is our summary of the market,” said Martin Johnson, the chief executive of Adelie Foods, a major supplier of coffee shops and universities.
Part of what pushes the industry forwards is the maddening fact that we continue to make so many sandwiches at home – an estimated 5bn a year. “The biggie is still the people who aren’t buying,” Johnson told me. The prize that seemed so unlikely in 1980 – the industrialisation of something as scrappy as the sandwich – is now almost a provocation to people who dedicate themselves to the food-to-go concept.
After all, every sandwich you make at home is one they have not sold. When you talk to people in the business, they will invoke the inventory problems faced by ordinary households in supplying enough variety in salads and breads. They are also aware that, barring a dramatic change in our circumstances (around 2009, following the financial crisis, there was a brief but noticeable fall in the sale of shop-bought sandwiches), people who start eating on the move don’t look back. When I dropped by the development kitchens at Sainsbury’s a few weeks ago, there was an Oakwood smoked ham and cheddar sandwich – the supermarket’s bestseller – sitting on the table. “Twenty thousand people a day used to make a ham and cheese sandwich,” said Patrick Crease, a product development manager. “Now this is their ham and cheese sandwich.” I don’t know whether he meant to, but he made this sound somehow profound and irreversible. “There are 20,000 variants that don’t exist anymore.”
More fundamentally, though, the sandwich has proven itself to be uniquely adaptable to our time-pressed, late-capitalist condition. In her 2010 book about sandwiches, Wilson wrote that the best way to understand it was not to think about it as food wrapped in bread, but as a form of eating – functional and transitory – that reflects how we live now. “Sandwiches freed us from the fork, the dinner table, the fixed meal-time,” Wilson wrote. “In a way, they freed us from society itself.”
A Pret A Manger kitchen in central London. Photograph: Jonathan Player/Rex/Shutterstock/Alamy
Sandwich people seek to know more about us than we know about ourselves. They spend just as much time thinking about our habits and frailties as they do thinking about what we want to eat. Starbucks knows you are more likely to have a salad on a Monday, and a ham and cheese toastie on a Friday. Sandwich factories know that our New Year’s resolutions will last until the third week of January, when the BLT orders pick up again. Clare Clough, the food director of Pret a Manger, told me that the company can predict years in advance, if necessary, its busiest day for breakfast sandwiches: the last working Friday before Christmas – office party hangover morning – which this year falls on 15 December. “We can tell you now how many we are going to do,” she said.
The most obvious – and ambitious – plot of the sandwich industry is to make us eat them throughout the day. People in the trade, I noticed, rarely talk about breakfast, lunch or dinner. They speak instead about “day parts”, “occasions” and “missions”, and any and all of these is good for a sandwich. In 2016, the British public carried out an estimated 5bn food-to-go “missions”, and these are spread ever more evenly across the day parts. In recent years, the biggest development in the sandwich business has been its successful targeting of breakfast. (The best-selling filling of the last 12 months has been bacon.) And the next frontier, logic dictates, is dinner – or, as it was described to me at Adelie Foods, “the fragmentation of the evening occasion”.
Whiteside, the former Marks & Spencer sandwich man, is one person who believes that the industry can take on the night. He left M&S in 1999, after 20 years, and helped to found Ocado, the online supermarket. In 2013, Whiteside became the chief executive of Greggs, the UK’s largest bakery chain, where he has overseen a radical expansion and simplification of the business – opening hundreds of new stores, drive-throughs and a delivery service. Last month, he told me that he sees the hot sandwich as the key to making Greggs “more appealing in the evening day part”. If you want people to eat a sandwich on their way home, give them something warm. We were sitting in a small meeting room on the second floor of Greggs’s corporate headquarters, on the edge of Newcastle. “Think about it,” said Whiteside. “A burger is a hot sandwich, isn’t it?” He seemed pleased by this, the intimation of another day part to conquer. “Sandwiches,” he said, “never sit still.”
T he revolutionary possibilities of the sandwich have always been well hidden by its sheer obviousness. The best history, written by Woody Allen in 1966, imagines the conceptual journey taken by the fourth Earl of Sandwich 200 years earlier. “1745: After four years of frenzied labour, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and encourages him.”
Scholarly attempts to isolate the precise moment of incarnation – the first stack – mostly read like other parodies. There is some theorising around “trenchers”, thick hunks of bread that served as plates in the Middle Ages, and overwrought interpretations of Shakespeare’s references to “bread-and-cheese” while everyone acknowledges the long history of flatbreads and their fillings in southern Europe and the Middle East. For this reason, there is strong interest in the Earl’s tour of the Mediterranean as a young man in 1738-39, but unfortunately he made no mention of the pitta bread or the calzone in the detailed journal that was published after his death.
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.
John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, in a 1739 painting by George Knapton. Photograph: Alamy
The evidence for this, though, is weak. In his definitive biography, The Insatiable Earl, published in 1994, NAM Rodger concludes that Sandwich was hard-up, and never wagered much for a man of his rank. A large, shambling figure, prone to breaking china, the Earl ran the Admiralty, by most accounts badly, for a total of 11 years. He lived alone after his wife went mad in 1755. Visitors to his house remarked on the poor quality of the food. “Some of his made dishes are either meagre or become absolutely obsolete,” said his friend, Lord Denbigh. The likely truth is that the entire future of the sandwich – its symbiotic relationship with work, its disregard for a slower, more sociable way of eating – was present at its inception. In 18th-century English high society, the main meal of the day was served at around 4pm, which clashed with the Earl’s duties at the Admiralty. He probably came up with the beef sandwich as a way of eating at his desk.
The fad was soon unstoppable. Louis Eustache Ude, the chef d’hotel to the Earl of Sefton, acknowledged the power of new format in his cookbook of 1813. A generous spread of sandwiches “of fowl, of ham, of veal, of tongue, &c., some plates of pastry and here and there on the table some baskets of fruit” – a textbook food-to-go offering, in other words – could cut the costs of a dinner and dance by three quarters. But it was demeaning, too. Chef Ude did his best to refine the craze, suggesting bechamel as a barrier and urging “extraordinary care” in the trimming of salad, but you can sense in his words the frustration that he has been reduced to this. “Of all things in the world, sandwiches have least need of explanation,” he wrote. “Everyone knows how to make them, more or less.”
It takes a certain type of mind to really innovate between two pieces of bread. Isabella “Mrs” Beeton arguably designed the first avant-garde sandwich, in 1861, with her “Toast Sandwich” – a piece of toast, seasoned with salt and pepper, between two pieces of bread – but for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the sandwich was what it was. Crustless fingers for the rich what one cookbook called “mouth distorters” for the poor. In postwar Britain, in particular, the sandwich – bread dry after hours on display, a sad mess inside – came to express a kind of culinary hopelessness. “It is by eating sandwiches in pubs on Saturday lunchtimes that the British seek to atone for whatever their national sins have been,” wrote Douglas Adams in 1984.
The M&S breakthrough arrived on high streets populated by mostly featureless sandwich bars. Slow service. Bins of fillings of indeterminate age. “It was a depressing situation,” Julian Metcalfe told me. “Ninety per cent of them were depressing places.” Metcalfe opened the first branch of Pret a Manger, at 75b Victoria Street, in London, during the summer of 1986. He was 26 years old. He had been running a delicatessen in Putney, but it had no kitchen, and Metcalfe was dismayed by what he was forced to sell. “We were delivered coleslaw with a 16-day shelf life,” he recalled. “I remember thinking: ‘Goodness.’” With a university friend, Sinclair Beecham, Metcalfe decided to open a delicatessen-cum-sandwich shop in Westminster.
The first Pret was a mess of salads, cured meats, cheeses and sandwiches that Metcalfe made in the back. When I asked him how he came to settle on sandwiches, he said: “Because they sold better than ham. Slicing ham took for ever.” Metcalfe, who is by temperament impatient, concentrated on trying to serve customers in a minute or less. “We started by selling the obvious sandwiches,” he said. “Cheese. And I realised, why can’t we do leg of lamb with mint?”
Metcalfe was unleashed. He roasted chickens until 1am, and stripped off the meat with his hands. A supplier pitched him a small freshwater lobster, called a crayfish. He was mad about rocket. A Pret a Manger sandwich cookbook, published in 1996, retains the zany air of experiment: lamb, redcurrant jelly and aubergine goats cheese, pink peppercorns, tomatoes. The formula didn’t come easy. It took Metcalfe and Beecham four years to open their second shop, on Bishopsgate, in the City of London. When they did, they played opera at full blast to accompany the sandwiches. “It was preposterous,” said Metcalfe. “But it worked.”
Two doors down from the original Pret, there used to be another sandwich shop, called French Franks, which concentrated on the filled croissant – itself a daring concept at the time. Frank Boltman, who is not French, watched the Pret boys with wonder. “It was make six, sell six. Little but often. It is the same way it works now,” he said. “They were constantly selling fresh product, which is beautiful.”
Boltman had nine branches of French Franks by the early 1990s, but he could not keep up with Pret a Manger. Pret will open its 500th branch next year, and is currently valued at £1.4bn. (Metcalfe sold most of his stake in 2008.) But Boltman still knows a thing or two. A small man with a husky voice and a moustache that he smooths as he talks, he won four consecutive sandwich designer of the year awards – at the BSA’s fiercely contested “Sammies” – between 2009 and 2012.
“My idea of relaxation is to write down five new sandwiches,” he said when we met recently at his latest baby, a vaguely hipsterish place called Trade, on the Essex Road in north London. The quest of the sandwich inventor is a mostly pitiless one. The industry has its own 80:20 rule: 80% of sales come from 20% of the flavours. These are often referred to as “the core” – the egg mayonnaise, the BLT, the chicken salad – and they are as familiar as our own blood. Pret’s best-selling sandwiches (the top three are all baguettes: chicken caesar and bacon, tuna and cucumber, cheddar and pickle) have not changed for seven years. M&S’s prawn mayo has been its No 1 for 36.
Undaunted by this, Boltman starts out by choosing the bread, and the ingredients from those he is already using on his menu. The art of the sandwich designer is to think inwards, to find variations within a known and delineated realm. “It is a question of using tenacity, knowledge, know-how, flair,” said Boltman. People in the industry talk about seminal new combinations – Pret’s crayfish and rocket M&S’s Wensleydale and carrot chutney – like Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night Dream, or Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The story comes alive again. Someone finds a new move in chess.
It is possible to be a showman. Boltman talked about a chicken and broccoli bun he made in the 80s. “Granary seeded roll as a vehicle,” he said. “Unbelievable.” While we were talking, the kitchen made me Boltman’s interpretation of the Reuben, which he sells for £8.50. I hadn’t eaten that morning, and the pastrami, which had been cured for a week, lay deep. The taste of caraway seeds in the rye bread lingered in the roof of my mouth. “Did the secret sauce come through?” he asked.
Boltman has been round the block a few times. He had a McDonald’s franchise for a while. He observed that, even as sandwiches function as an accelerant of our harried, grinding lives, they also offer a moment of precious, private escape. “People want to eat,” he said, leaning close. “They want comfort. They want solace. I’ve had a shit morning. I’ve fallen out with my boss. I’ve had a fucking horrible journey in. A poxy lettuce-and-whatever concoction in a plastic bowl is not going to do it for me. I want a cup of tea, a chocolate biscuit and I actually want to cry. I am going out for a fucking sandwich.”
A fter the rapid growth of the 1980s and 1990s, the sandwich industry consolidated. Appropriately enough, it consists of two sides: the specialist chains like Subway, Greggs and Pret a Manger, where the thing is assembled fresh in the shop and the network of factories, spawned by M&S, that work through the night and supply supermarkets, high-street coffee bars, prisons, airlines, hospitals and everybody else. Among the sandwich chains, the bigger brands – with economies of scale and better locations – prospered. Subway, the US giant, which opened its first UK store in Brighton in 1996, now has 2,500 branches, and is the largest fresh-assembly operation in the country, with Greggs not far behind.
On the factory side, there was a wave of mergers and acquisitions, as companies sought sufficient production capacity to be able to supply Tesco, or Waitrose. These days, two firms, Greencore and 2 Sisters, loom above the rest, supplying well over half of the UK’s factory-made sandwiches between them – perhaps a billion a year. Greencore, which grew out of Ireland’s former state-owned sugar beet industry, has eight facilities in Britain and a large US business, and claims to be the largest sandwich maker in the world. Greencore and 2 Sisters routinely sweep the BSA’s technical awards, for their innovations in thawing prawns and washing salad. Neither allowed me to visit. (2 Sisters Food Group was recently the subject of a Guardian/ITV investigation into its processing of supermarket chicken.)
Large-scale sandwich making is fearsomely complicated and operates on tiny profit margins. As a result, it is secretive. “It’s totally crazy,” Rachel Collinson, the former commercial director of a plant in Northampton that was acquired by Greencore in 2011, told me. Collinson helped push through the introduction of the cardboard skillet, which was designed for Pret in 1999, and became widespread throughout the industry in the 2000s. On any given morning, her factory would receive 800 different ingredients, which it would turn into 250,000 sandwiches by the early afternoon. “I have worked in nearly every single food category,” she told me. “There is nothing like sandwiches. It’s super-fast, super-fresh. It’s the leading edge.”
On a grey morning last month, I was invited to see the sandwich assembly lines at Adelie – a £300m food-to-go manufacturer – at Wembley, in north-west London. Like many wholesalers, Adelie is reluctant to name its clients, for fear of ending the illusion that most supermarkets and high-street brands still make their own. The factory manager was Azzeddine “Abdul” Chahar, a 48-year-old former police detective from Algiers, who fled the country’s civil war in 1993. Chahar has been making sandwiches ever since, although he sometimes gets funny looks when he tells friends back home what he does. Algerians, like many people around the world, regard the sandwich as inferior fast food, because it is cold. “Even today,” he shrugged. He tries to persuade his teenage daughter to have a decent meal at school, but most mornings she makes him buy her a sandwich on the way. “It’s a quick lunch. Pick up and go,” Chahar said. “There is no time in the UK. You know that.”
We put on wellington boots, white coats and hairnets, and washed our hands three or four times. Dressing to enter a sandwich factory is a bit like preparing to perform surgery on a horse. Chahar showed me corridors stacked high with specialised brown bread (which must be perfectly square), cold storage with six days’ supply of cheese, and a room with 22 different mayonnaises. In 2010, Raynor Foods, a small family-owned factory in Chelmsford, introduced the Intense tomato, a plum tomato with thicker cell walls that help retain moisture. It has become the industry standard. The tomato was originally designed by a subsidiary of Bayer, the German pharmaceuticals corporation, for use in pizza toppings, and has dramatically reduced the incidence of soggy sandwiches. But it is sometimes hard to come by. Chahar spotted a crate. “The suppliers were struggling to find them last week,” he groused.
In the main production hall, which had a red floor and a thrumming air supply – keeping the temperature a steady 10C – a couple of hundred workers lined seven conveyor belts. Chahar took me to the middle of the room, where around a dozen women were making one of Adelie’s newest lines, a chicken tikka and onion bhaji sandwich, which is popular among students. The belt was going at about 33 sandwiches a minute, so the woman at each stage – arranging the 40g of chicken, dolloping and spreading out the bhaji paste, sprinkling on 3g of coriander – got less than two seconds before they went past.
A person known as the “stacker” then put two sandwiches on top of each other and fed them into the Grote AC60 ultrasonic cutting machine. Chahar and I drew close. A tiny whine emanated from the titanium blade, which was vibrating 20,000 times a second and making perfect triangles. Ultrasonic cutters were designed to slice faultlessly through chocolate and cheese. “It can cut through,” murmured Chahar. “You will not feel the pain. Trust me.”
Over the years, Chahar has tried to get unemployed British people to join his sandwich lines. “They come here. They do half day. They never come back,” he told me. (Adelie has also made similar, largely unsuccessful attempts with ex-convicts.) The work is too cold, and too repetitive. Pay at the Wembley factory starts at £7.50 an hour. As a result, most sandwich factories have relied on immigrant labour for at least a decade in 2014, the news that Greencore was recruiting in Hungary prompted an infamous Daily Mail headline, which asked: “IS THERE NO ONE LEFT IN BRITAIN WHO CAN MAKE A SANDWICH?” According to the BSA, about 75% of people in the sandwich and cafe sector in the capital are from overseas in the rest of the country, it’s 40%. For Chahar, who dreams of introducing the sandwich to Algeria, it is a baffling situation. “The British people needs to get into this job. It is the sandwich,” he said. “They should be proud.”
The decision to leave the EU, then, is proving extremely awkward for our national cuisine. In theory, Britain’s freshly-made sandwich sector, with its world-leading technology and expertise, could be on the brink of spreading lucratively around the world. In fact, since last June, it has been assailed by rising food prices and unnerving questions about who – or what – is going to make the damn things in the future. “Brexit has fucked everything up,” one chief executive, whose firm relies heavily on eastern European labour, told me. “On the day after the vote, on that Friday, people are walking up to me and saying, ‘Do I go home now?’ These are the people who dug us out of a hole when the indigenous population failed.”
When I met Jim Winship, of the BSA, he sketched an unhappy picture of the nation’s sandwich infrastructure falling apart. “You take the workforce away and the Costas of this world can’t function,” he said. “If they start closing down and retracting, that is going to have a knock-on effect.” The sandwich industry, Winship pointed out, doesn’t merely sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs, it also produces billions of pounds of added productivity throughout the economy. “It allows people to carry on working over lunch,” he said.
At Adelie, the CEO, Martin Johnson, who worked at BMW and Ford earlier in his career, was more circumspect. But he observed that Brexit is likely to hasten the arrival of robots on the sandwich line. “One of the things you can do is be less dependent on labour,” he said. Down on the factory floor, Chahar showed me a new high-tech filling depositor – a shiny metallic cone – that the company was trying out. “The idea is to move to automation as much as you can,” he said. Blobs of egg mayonnaise dropped precisely on to slices of white bread from about a foot above the conveyor belt. A lone woman spread the sandwich mix with a spatula in each hand. I looked up and down the line. There were only four people on it, compared to eight or nine on all the rest. The completed sandwiches seemed to travel a long time on the belt without any human intervention. At the far end, the stacker readied them for the slicer. She caught my eye and smiled.
T he steady, relentless expansion of the sandwich empire – the colonisation of new day parts – is not a phenomenon that draws attention to itself. Over two days in late September, I attended Lunch!, the food-to-go industry’s annual trade show at the Excel centre in east London, and the sandwich was conspicuous by its absence. Instead there were 300 or so exhibitors hawking fruit crisps, tofu from Devon and chickpea puffs. A graph supplied by the organisers more or less explained why. Together, sandwiches, wraps and baguettes accounted for more than a third of all the food we bought at lunchtime in 2016. Add burgers and the proportion rises to 40%. The only other items that came close were crisps, chips and chocolate bars. Salads made up 3.5% of our lunches. Sushi didn’t make the top 10.
The sandwich has nothing to prove. Whether it wanted to or not, pretty much everything else at Lunch! – the nut shots, the sun-dried bananitos (small bananas from Thailand), the gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free chai lattes, the coconut teriyaki jerky, the chocolate-flavoured insects and the cactus water – was vying for the chance to be picked up as an accompaniment to the main event. The packaging stands were the same. A man called Ewald showed me a new, lightweight German baguette wrapper that zips off halfway down and is selling like crazy in the Benelux countries and Argentina. “It’s a wow effect, ja,” he said, stripping off the top half of a seeded bun.
To find the sandwich action, you had to know where to look. Upstairs, in an executive suite, officials from the British Sandwich Association were overseeing a quiet contest to find fillings for the Croll – a croissant crossed with a roll – which is an invention of the New York Bagel Company. At a hotplate, a young development chef was working on a Croll D’hollandaise.
At the fair, I would occasionally glimpse the name of a big player – a Pret, a Greencore, a Tesco – on a delegate badge going past. They were there, watching the trends, and each other. This year, Lunch! was all about proteins and vegetarianism. Giving up meat for a day or two a week, or going vegan for a bit – a millennial tendency known as “flexitarianism” – is a big deal in the food-to-go industry. Pret a Manger opened its first vegetarian shop in central London last summer, and now has three in the capital. In January, M&S will launch a range of vegan sandwiches on bright red, green and yellow vegetable-based breads.
In the centre of the hall, I came across the Soho Sandwich Company, an upmarket supplier, which, I learned, provides sandwiches to the Guardian canteen. Dan Silverston, the managing director, showed me its new TLT – a vegan BLT made with tofurkey. “That’s cool,” he said. “That’s on point. That’s on trend.” Frank Boltman ambled up. He gazed at the stands of pitta breads, exotic botanicals and pre-mixed salads surrounding us. “Take away the food,” he said, “and it’s just a war.”
Every half an hour, speakers would appear on two stages on opposite sides of the hall. A branding person from Leon spoke in front of slides that said: “Kombucha”, “Gut health”, and “Be storytellers”. On the Friday morning, a huge crowd gathered for a talk by Roger Whiteside, the former Marks & Spencer executive now running Greggs. When Whiteside took over, the business was struggling. A high-street baker for 70 years, Greggs hadn’t found a way to adapt to the fact that 80% of its customers wanted something to eat immediately. Over the last four years, and in his matter of fact way, Whiteside has turned Greggs from a baker that also sold sandwiches (Greggs has done a solid line in baguettes since 1988) into a pure food-to-go company. Profits have risen by 50%.
Sitting on a stool at Lunch!, Whiteside took questions from the audience about rising food prices and the importance of coffee to unlocking the morning day part. Whiteside, who is 58, was on his way back up to Newcastle, where Greggs is based, and he enjoyed playing the northern realist to the southern flexitarians. The average spend in Greggs, Whiteside pointed out, is £2.85. “Can we ever imagine selling quinoa in Sunderland?” He mused. “If we can, we will.” Everybody clapped.
A few weeks later, I travelled up to Newcastle to see him. When I asked Whiteside to explain the rise of the sandwich that he has witnessed throughout his career, his answer acknowledged in part the pressured lives of the population it feeds. “When you talk to people, if they are honest, a large number of people eat the exact same sandwich every single day, all their life,” he said. Even as it facilitates a faster and more solitary life, the sandwich provides a kind of security. We seek it out because we have enough to contend with as it is. “People don’t want to be disappointed,” said Whiteside. And in a way, that is the very British secret of a very British industry. The sandwich is a national pastime of modest expectations, remorselessly fulfilled.
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