5 tasty sandwich etymologies
You may well be familiar with the origin of the sandwich. The story opens in mid-18th-century England with John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, and a particularly distracting run at the gaming table. In fact, the distraction proved so great that Montagu forewent formal meals and refreshments, and instead requested the simple snack of slices of cold beef between toast. While people had no doubt been putting meat between pieces of bread long before the Earl, it was his name that ended up associated with the food.
Given the food’s own quirky etymology, it should be no surprise that the world of sandwiches is full of interesting etymologies.
Most closely associated with New Orleans, the po’ boy (or poor boy) seems at first glance similar to other long roll sandwiches. The crucial differences are the French bread, which is produced by New Orleans-based bakeries and boasts a light interior and crusty outside, and a tendency towards seafood fillings, such as fried crawfish. The name itself reflects the regional contraction of the word poor to po’.
The story most often told to explain the sandwich’s origin, according to the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Food and Drink in America, credits Benny and Clovis Martin, owners of Martin Brothers Grocery in 1920s New Orleans. Several have claimed that the Martins came up with the sandwich as a way of assisting striking streetcar workers with an affordable meal. Others have said that the Martins, wanting to appease the young black boys begging after sandwiches “for a po’ boy,” began to cut sandwiches into thirds and handing out portions for free.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food and Drink in America, the sandwich that came to be known as a sloppy joe has been around since the early 20th century. Composed of seasoned ground beef, onions, green pepper, and garlic, the sandwich is known for its loose assembly and resulting sloppy eating experience. The name itself likely comes from one of two restaurants, both named — you guessed it — Sloppy Joe’s, one in Havana, Cuba and the other in Key West, Florida. Given the spread of restaurants in the US named Sloppy Joe’s during the late 1930s, it is likely that the sandwich was named for the restaurants that served it.
Typically constructed of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, the Reuben is a staple of American delis. Three separate cases have been made claiming the invention of the sandwich. One version offers up the sandwich as the invention of Reuben Kolakofsky, a grocer in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1920s, who put together a sandwich of the original ingredients for a group of poker players at the Blackstone Hotel. (Gambling, it would seem, figures rather prominently in sandwich history.) The sandwich, according to this story, was such a success that hotel owner put it permanently on the menu and named it after Kolakofsky.
Another story begins in 1914 with Arthur Reuben, owner of the former Reuben’s Delicatessen of New York City. One day at the deli counter, an out-of-work actress named Annette Seelos requested something to eat and Mr. Reuben made her a large sandwich, filled with roast beef, cheeses, and spices, which he called “Reuben’s Special.” The lack of the traditional ingredients, however, has called this claim into question.
The only substantiated claim — in terms of the typical Reuben ingredients — comes from the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. The hotel has managed to produce a menu dating from 1937. However, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists a reference to the sandwich as early as 1927, although the citation does not list the ingredients.
Often confused with the hero sandwich — that would be a long roll or loaf stuffed with deli meats, cheeses, lettuce, etc. — a gyro is a sandwich of spiced meat (usually beef or lamb) and salad served in a pita. The word comes from the modern Greek guros, which means “turning,” after the meat, which is cooked on a vertical spit. The sandwich is closely related to shawarma (from Middle East cuisine), as both gyros and shawarma are descended from the doner kebab of Turkish cuisine.
Baozi — or bao, as it’s usually called — is a steamed, stuffed bun of Chinese origin notable for its similarity to a dumpling. The bun can be stuffed with a wide variety of fillings, ranging from the savory to the sweet. While the etymology of baozi isn’t particularly interesting, the steamed bread used in its preparation, mantou, has the rather alarming literal meaning of ‘barbarian heads’. The Oxford Companion to Food observes that the etymology of mantou remains unclear, as frequent misspellings of the word suggest that the word may actually be of foreign origin.
So, while it is likely untrue, the story often told about mantou credits its invention to strategist Zhuge Liang during the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. Struggling to cross a swift river with his troops, Liang recalled advice from a barbarian king: sacrifice 49 men and send their heads down the river to appease the water spirits. Rather than killing any of his men, Liang came up with a culinary solution; he slaughtered several cows and horses, cooked up a batch of bread, filled those buns with the animal meat, and then shaped the sacrificial delicacies into human heads before tossing them to the water. But while the story is a lovely explanation, there is little evidence to support it.