Deep Thoughts About Sandwiches: John Montagu, Gambling Debts, and Reading Terminal Market

Unlike most of his corpulent countrymen, John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, spent more time at the gambling than at the dinner table. 

A founding member of the notorious Hellfire Club, to which only the most refined rakes and well-born lechers in England were granted admittance, Montagu was, by any measure, an extraordinary man. History has all but forgotten him, and of his many accomplishments, scarce a word is now spoken, but we’ll do our best, in hushed tones right here on this unvisited blog, to preserve his memory and reflect a little bit on his fascinating life. Among the various positions he held during the course of his seventy-three years, Montagu acted as Great Britain’s secretary of state, postmaster general, lord of the admiralty, and–the role for which he was, by both temperament and predilection, most naturally suited–master of gambling. 

Okay, okay–you caught me! That last role, that of “gambling master”, isn’t a real one by which Montagu was distinguished. I suppose it’s something of an informal title with which I’ve taken it upon myself to crown his fading memory. Check online and you’ll certainly not find his “mastery of gambling” mentioned among the top achievements that his dusty-old Wikipedia resume boasts of. That said, it was the reason behind and the stimulus to the small amount of fame that his name continues to enjoy to this day. 

Patience, dear reader: we’ll get to his mythical capacity to gamble in just a minute. I opened this little essay by contrasting our man Montagu with the swelling population of chubby Englishmen among whom he lived. During an age of unrestrained eating and bibulous drinking, when immoderate days led to gout-stricken nights, Montagu comported himself differently from the crowd. He had an appetite not for the hearty, fatty, belt-exploding spreads of braised mutton and shepherd’s pie with which his fellow Englishmen gorged their hungry jowls, but, rather, for the sweet dangers and addictive delights of the high-stakes games of poker in which he ravenously indulged. 

It was not uncommon for these games to carry on interminably—deep into the night, or well into the subsequent day. If you’ve ever seen the episode of The Sopranos in which Davey Scatino (the proprietor of a local sporting goods store who found himself in arrears to the tough-talking ex-con, Ritchie Aprile) quintuples his debt of $8,000 over the course of a marathon card game, you probably have an accurate image in your mind of how this kind of endless evening might unfold. During the course of such nights, countless hours, and countless dollars might evaporate unnoticed into the smoke-filled air. Just like that, they’d be gone in an instant, without having left behind a trace. Huge, unrecoverable sums of time and money would be emptied, all at once, into the consuming abyss of the blackjack, black-hole game of cards. It was, for those daring enough to inch toward its alluring edge, a bottomless pit into which many a good, otherwise temperate and balanced man couldn’t but fall. He need only be gently pushed by the prospect of another good wager, or enticed by the promise of an ironclad bet. 

Montagu, the scion of one of England’s wealthiest and noblest families, enjoyed what was, for all intents and purposes, an inexhaustible purse. He had a vast, nearly unquantifiable amount of money with which to play, and play with it he did. His experience as a gambler grew until, one day, he came to be recognized as one of England’s best (or worst, depending on your view of the sport, and the morals of those by whom it’s played). Among the participants in this filthy, rotten, no-good sport of vice, Montagu was recognized as having attained to a supreme status. He was the Babe Ruth of bettors; the Pele of punters. He was, in the opinion of everyone with whom he sat down and played, a player who might, in one fell swoop, outspend, out-maneuver, and outwit you, without your having taken any notice of his calculated subtlety and his unerring skill. 

Added to his skill was his indefatigability: the Sopranos-quality of unwearied endurance that helps to keep a man awake, alive, upright in his chair, attentive to the craftiness of his opponents, carefully in control of himself, his hand, and his intentions, and, most important of all, focused on the game that he might’ve bet his life on. It was a consequence of Montagu’s unwavering devotion (or incurable addiction) to the sport of gambling that a certain beloved food was invented. 

A food born of a gambler’s addiction, you ask? Yes! And what a delicious food it was, and still remains! 

That food, of which we’re all so immensely fond, out of which America has practically made a symbolic national lunch, came into being many years ago because John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, couldn’t stop gambling! By this point, you’ve probably guessed the identity of the food for whose creation Montagu’s addiction to cards was in no small way responsible. If not, I’ll tell you now: I speak, of course, of the sandwich. Yes!–America’s cherished noontime meal: the sandwich–the scrumptious, glorious, perfectly-crafted and balanced sandwich–that great dish to which the high-living, fast-eating, big-spending English aristocrat lent his regal name! 

It’s a story (some claim apocryphal) with which you, my fellow sandwich-loving friend, are probably familiar: Montagu, unwilling to interrupt his gambling binges with an importunate and time-consuming meal, requested that his servant provide him with a dish that might be consumed hastily and neatly, without having to leave the excitement and intrigue of the gambling table. He wanted to avoid having to depart from his game, lose track of his strategy, navigate to his dining hall, and observe, as every good English aristocrat must, the insufferably slow customs of formality and etiquette with which proper British suppers were then associated. Hungry for food, but impatient of the customs they were joined by, Montagu decided to change things up. He called for his servant, to whom he whispered an unprecedented order: a layer (or two) of succulent meat enclosed and supported by two thick slices of bread. 

The servant, by this point accustomed to Lord Montagu’s idiosyncratic behavior and eccentric dietary demands, produced the unusual dish to the gambler’s exact specifications. Sprinting from the kitchen, in which the cooks were all busily at work, he brought back with him the delicious finger food for which the Earl of Sandwich would forever be known (and on which millions of us would continue to dine). In honor of Lord Montagu, this meal would be christened with the name, “sandwich”, in reference to his prestigious earldom. 

The impact of this dish’s creation can’t be understated. Among gamblers and businessmen, artists and priests, Whigs and Tories, the sandwich’s popularity spread like wildfire. It was an immediate hit in all culinary circles. It was the star around which the dimmer, older items on the menus now revolved. After a few short years, everyone, no matter his class nor his place in society, was gripping and munching into sandwiches for lunch, and everywhere an acknowledgement and celebration of the Earl’s gustatory genius could be heard. 

These celebratory cries echoed not only around the British Isles, but across the Atlantic Ocean. As though propelled by a vigorous westward wind, they traveled all the way to the shores of colonial America, at the heart of which the capital city of Philadelphia proudly stood. There, in that fair city through which the chords of brotherly affection rang, the sandwich was giddily embraced. Philadelphians forewent their usual, bland meals of cured meat, flat cider, and boiled vegetables, and opted instead for this entirely new thing–a hearty, wholesome, delicious sandwich. In almost no time at all, the sandwich (an English import, mind you, during an age of revolution) became a household favorite and a culinary staple. 

Philadelphians experimented with its basic construction, incorporating a variety of meats, an assortment of cheeses, a stream of new sauces, and a few different types of grainy, hearty bread with which to hold all the mingled goodness together. By this time, the Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish had arrived and settled the fertile middle and western parts of the state (in which, to this day, they still reside). They brought with them from the old country a vivid memory of the baked goods and scrumptious meals with which their kitchens, shops, and bellies were filled. More importantly, they brought with them the hallowed recipes by which these delicious memories could be brought, once again, to life. 

And so, they set out to bake the breads, stir the sauces, and prepare the meats that would build this new world of America, and this new world of sandwiches. 

It’s safe to say that, if the English (at the request of John Montagu) invented the sandwich, the Americans perfected it. And, among the Americans most responsible for its perfection, we have the good citizens of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia to thank. In so doing, we remove our caps in a collective display of gratitude, and thank them for their gustatory genius. 

Today, I’m convinced, Philadelphia is the sandwich capital not just of America, but of the entire world. (As an aside, I include under the expansive word sandwich such controversial candidates and regional delicacies as hoagies and cheesesteaks. Damn me as a heretic, condemn me to the gates of Hell, but I also consider hot dogs and hamburgers to be, by the strict confines of our definition, sandwiches. That’s right: any meat encased by separable or separated slices of bread qualifies, in my unpopular opinion, as a sandwich–legitimate in every way and fully deserving of all sandwich rights. I am, in my stance toward applicants to the great school of sandwich, a most liberal and welcoming dean of admissions. Like a latitudinarian who’s open in his embrace of any and all religious sects, I’m accepting of most bread-enclosed foods who claim themselves to be sandwiches. I don’t expect you to agree with me on this highly contentious point. It is, after all, a ticklish matter on which we all harbor very strong and, the closer we are to lunch, peckishly fierce opinions). 

And yet, putting this argument aside, I think we can all agree that Philadelphia, with all its cheesesteaks, sandwiches, hoagies, and burgers, is the sandwich capital of the world. 

After a recent visit to the city’s famed Reading Terminal Market during the holiday season, I am, more than ever, fully convinced of this truth. For those of you who’ve not had the pleasure of strolling through and eating in this Disneyland of delis, desserts, soft pretzels, fresh cannolis, Eagles paraphernalia, and juicy roast pork, I urgently advise you to set aside some time for a trip (and, more importantly, some room in your belly).

After facing the very real threat of extinction as a result of the city’s harsh response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Reading Terminal Market, which has been operational, in one form or another, since the late nineteenth-century, is as vital now as ever. Its narrow corridors are packed with happy, hungry, curious patrons shuffling every which way, to whom a thousand and one inexpensive dining options are available. Its cash registers incessantly buzz with glee, as they struggle to hold the day’s prodigious profits. Its atmosphere, of which I urge you to take a deep, long breath, is saturated with the sweet aroma of raspberry cake, banana pudding, and fresh apple cobbler, while a savory electricity conducts itself from one meaty station to the next. Through every inch of the Market’s indoor setting, into which countless people are crammed, an unidentifiable energy flows freely. It’s an energy that can be felt, but not seen by all who are there. 

As for its infinite variety of great sandwiches–they’ve never been so delicious. 

For proof, you need only eat at the following two places: Hershel’s East Side Deli and Tommy DiNic’s. The former is a classic Jewish deli, built in the mould of New York’s famed Katz’s Delicatessen (at which, if I’ve not been miseducated, the late Hershel himself worked). Awaiting you at Hershel’s are the best sandwiches (corned beef, pastrami, and brisket) that $11 can buy. I just assumed, upon holding the sandwich and examining its towering stack of meat, that each one of the eleven dollars financed a single layer of corned beef. In a word, the sandwich was huge, flaunting a size commensurate with its incredibly delicious taste. 

DiNic’s, as it’s affectionately called, specializes in roast pork and roast beef. What more need I say about these two quintessentially “Philly” meals? Stuffed into a soft yet absorbent long Italian roll, these succulent meats–crowned with sweet green peppers and sauteed broccoli rabe–virtually jump up to the level of your face, where they dance before your nose and clamor to be eaten. As it happens, I’ve never been one to resist their call, and I’ve never been anything short of delighted by their consumption. DiNic’s, without a doubt, is your destination for an out-of-this-world roast pork or beef sandwich. 

I think (to bring this meandering essay to a close!) John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, would wholeheartedly approve of these delicious sandwiches to which, in a very direct way, he’s responsible for having given life. And although he might not totally approve of a sovereign Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and America detached from the good stewardship of British rule, he would surely respect a place that has perfected his eponymous meal. To this, the Hellfire gambler would have to tip his cap. 

Let us, in response, thank the genteel gambler for his everlasting gift. 

Cheers, John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich! As one people, we raise our pastrami on rye in honor of your name! Between bites of corned beef and juicy brisket, roast pork and scrumptious beef, we think fondly of your vice. Thank you, and may history smile upon your immortal name. 

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