As I sat down at the start of a public lecture, I overheard the woman in front of me tell her companion, “You can’t build a social life around a sandwich!” I have no idea what the context of this outburst was, and am surprised that the phrase social life around a sandwich lodged itself in my memory.
Building a social life around a sandwich? That’s not as impossible as it sounds. Did you ever swap sandwiches at primary school? I often gave my peanut butter and golden syrup sandwiches to a friend in return for her vetkoek. Vetkoek is basically bread dough that has been deep fried in oil – simply delicious plain or stuffed with cheese or meat.
The rather grim sandwiches that were our regular fare at boarding school provided a brief opportunity for us to mingle and chat during the break – none of the day pupils were keen to try out our thick brown bread sandwiches sweetened with the merest smear of what we disparagingly called ‘floor polish’ jam (actually mixed fruit jam the colour of red floor polish).
While I was in residence at university, some of us would occasionally make and sell sandwiches to hungry fellow students in the evenings to raise funds for, say, the Fencing Club or the Mountain Club. These sales provided many opportunities for socialising with students we might not have had much to do with otherwise.
Alright, none of these examples constitute what one might classify as a ‘social life’ as such, so perhaps that woman was right. Nonetheless, where would we be without the humble sandwich? Let us nod our thanks to the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu (1718-1792), who apparently ordered meat to be served between two slices of bread so that he could continue playing cards. The name sandwich comes from him, even though this way of eating food was common in France and the Middle East well before he made this famous request.
According to http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-sandwich/ , the earliest recognizable form of a sandwich could 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.
Consider those doorstep sandwiches beloved of the ‘forever starving’ teenage boys; the work-a-day cut-in-half sandwiches that fill school lunchboxes; the more dainty cut-in-four sandwiches that appear in staffrooms and meetings. These days we can choose from a wide variety of breads and fillings, have our sandwiches open or closed, with or without crusts …
… the social life around a sandwich? Go to any public gathering where finger food is provided and you will find people congregating where the sandwiches are. That could be the start of a social life built around a sandwich!