The Case for National Sandwich Month
Mysterious August holiday goes missing…in 1981
By Christie MathernePosted Aug 24, 2011
In 1980, Chase’s Calendar of Annual Events listed August as National Sandwich Month. In the 1981 calendar, with no explanation or apology, that entry went missing, and was replaced by National Sandwich Day, celebrated November 3. All it says is that John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was born on that day. No one knows why it was changed.
We need to take back National Sandwich Month, if only because this holiday should not be celebrated on that thieving gambler’s birthday.
The year was 1762. John Montague was in a high-stakes poker game. He had some of the very best luck in England, and was holding his own, but his visage was crumbling. It had been 12 hours since he started the game, and he was hungry. Thankfully, being an Earl has its perks, and he had his own cook to boss around.
“Make me something I can eat with one hand,” Montague probably said to his cook, as he held a monocle, pinky finger outstretched.
One of the many tragedies of history is that the people with the ideas rarely get the credit. Just as Karl Benz patented and marketed the first automobile more than 10 years before Henry Ford did, no one has ever attributed the sandwich to Montague’s cook, because no one bothered to take down his name.
That day, 14 years prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the sandwich as we know it was born: a slice of meat between two pieces of toast. It might have been one of the crappiest sandwiches ever, but it allowed Montague to gamble his vast piles of cash for a straight 24 hours without having to take a lunch break.
And, of course, England was kind of bossing around its American colonies at the time, so the sandwich crossed the Atlantic.
But, as one could imagine, after the American Revolution, the populace of the newly free country did not want anything to do with England, including their culinary innovations. As such, they rejected the name “sandwich” (remember how modern America made an effort to take the French out of French fries some time ago). However, that didn’t mean Americans weren’t eating sandwiches.
They couldn’t afford to throw out the idea because of pride – it was too convenient, and early Americans had a lot of hard work to do, what with building a nation and all. And what railroad worker could find time for pot roast on a lunch break?
Ironically, sandwiches are now something of a cornerstone in American foodways. From hamburger to club, America is obsessed with the concept of meaty food between pieces of bread, because we’re obsessed with convenience. The United States has become synonymous with convenience – as a country, we get annoyingly better at it every year. The sandwich became a cultural timepiece as well – pop culture in the 1950s was built on hamburgers and places that sold them, and many a poodle-skirted girl decided to make out with the guy who bought one for them.
Consider the current American phenomenon of late-night hamburgers after a night of drinking. How did it become the thing to do? According to food historians, it’s kind of always been that way:
“Literary references to foods similar to sandwiches begin to appear in English during the 1760s, but also under the assumption that they are a food consumed primarily by the masculine sex during late night drinking parties,” wrote Solomon H. Katz in Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, published in 2003.
The English mentions of meat-filled pastries and finger-foods are not only referencing Montague’s crappy sandwich. They’re also referring to Turkish and Greek food traditions, such as the pita, that were said to have been witnessed by Montague in his travels to the area. The Turks and Greeks knew how to conveniently sober up, way before America, or Montague, figured it out.
This is enough of a case for not using Montague’s birthday as a sandwich holiday. But why use August as National Sandwich Month?
Originally, the month of August was chosen by the various components of the sandwich industry. According to the 1970 edition of Chase’s Calendar of Annual Events (when National Sandwich Month was first listed), the sponsors for the holiday were: Wheat Flour Institute, American Baker’s Association, American Dairy Association, National Livestock and Meat Board, and Wheat Flour Groups.
From a business perspective, the best time for people to buy sandwich products is when families aren’t focused on the heavy foods of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and when students go back to school. Plus, it’s really hot in August, and a sandwich can be eaten cold.
So, due to a coalition of sandwich ingredient purveyors, August was chosen. It remained so for 10 years, until the listing was edited out of the 1981 edition without so much as a, “Hey, August isn’t National Sandwich Month anymore.”
Even though no one knows why it was changed, we’ve got to make a decision here.
If our choices for a sandwich holiday boil down to these two options – sandwich market interests, or the birthday of a rich gambler who (a) stole the idea from the Turks and Greeks, (b) made his cook invent an English interpretation, and (c) accepted credit when it was named after him, which would you choose?
I say, until we find out the birthday of Montague’s cook, the 4th Earl of Sandwich already gets enough credit. Anyway, the sandwich is so steeped in current American culture, economy, and history, that America needs an entire month to celebrate it. Besides, what’s more American than market interests?
You know…besides the hamburger?