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Scott Joseph's Podcast

The Earl of Sandwich (the real one)

This story originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel Dec. 9, 2002

LONDON -- What do you call a sandwich without bread?

Your lordship, as it turns out.

In this case the Sandwich is also known as John Montagu, the 11th Earl of Sandwich. It was his ancestor, also John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who is credited with the "invention" of the sandwich -- meat between two slices of bread.

He is also credited with -- or blamed for, depending on which side of the Atlantic you're from -- helping the American colonies become an independent nation of states, and one of the current states was originally named for him, but we'll get back to that.

Surely within the culinary world there have been few epiphanies so simplistic and yet so revolutionary as the sandwich. And if only that Earl of Sandwich had patented the idea, the current Earl of Sandwich and his son Orlando wouldn't have the need to open a business called the Earl of Sandwich, selling -- what else? -- sandwiches.

No, the present Earl is not broke, but a British country estate - - in this case Mapperton Gardens near Dorset -- is costly to maintain. And as the fourth Earl so clearly demonstrated, everyone has to eat, lords and commoners alike.

So it was that 18 months ago the Earl and his son started the business. And that business has brought together the Earl and Orlando with another Earl and another Orlando.

Robert Earl, the restaurateur behind Planet Hollywood and, before that, Hard Rock Cafe, is teaming with the Montagus to bring the Earl of Sandwich sandwich operation to the Colonies -- probably first to Orlando (Florida), where Earl (Robert) is headquartered.

It was Orlando Montagu, 31, who first contacted Robert Earl.

"Orlando started writing me," says Earl, " `You're an Earl and my father's an earl; you live in Orlando and my name is Orlando; you're in the restaurant business and we have the sandwich.'

"I thought he was a crackpot," says Earl, "and for a long, long time I refused to respond."

But with things going slowly with Planet Hollywood, one of Montagu's letters caught Earl's attention. He met them at the House of Lords in London and things clicked. "There was great chemistry," says Earl.

As the Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu has a seat in Parliament's House of Lords, and it is there that he greets a visitor from Florida on a particularly dreary and drizzly London day in November.

Walking through the corridors, quiet and deserted with Parliament out of session, Montagu is more than a learned tour guide. When he comes to an 18th-century painting of members holding session in the chamber, he is able to point to his ancestor, sitting on one of the cross benches. He is amused by how many members were able to fit on the benches when the picture was painted compared with today, a commentary on the average girth of a member of Parliament.

Montagu himself is slender and tall, with longish hair and a boyish appearance. He hits all the high points that a tour guide would -- the chamber, with its startlingly bright red benches and the queen's throne; the robing room; and a display of what Montagu calls the prized exhibit, a document signed by Oliver Cromwell and others calling for the execution of King Charles I.

He proudly proclaims that his predecessor refused to sign the document, "But I stop by every now and then to make sure his name hasn't suddenly appeared."

In a simple bar/lounge for members of the House of Lords, Montagu sits sipping a glass of sherry at a table near the window overlooking the Thames and, on the opposite bank, St. Thomas's Hospital ("One must always think of Florence Nightingale, toiling away over there," he says).
Asked for his version of the invention of the sandwich, a question he surely has been asked countless times, he pauses as if to give it some real thought.

"I have to imagine myself standing in the hall -- the stairway hall -- gazing at the portrait of John Montagu looking at a portrait of Martha Ray," he says.

He's referring to the portraits in the hall of the country estate of the fourth Earl and his mistress, who is not the Martha Raye you're thinking of but who was a singer nonetheless.

"His wife was insane," he explains, "and he lived with Ray openly."

It's a portrait, he says, of a man who was enjoying himself.

"He played cards and needed to keep a hand free," says Montagu of Montagu, giving credence to the apocryphal tale of the fourth earl as a gambler so focused on the game that he refused to leave the table long enough to eat a proper meal.

It was then, the story goes, that he called for some rare roast beef to be placed between two slices of bread.

But Montagu allows for variations in the story.

"You have to look at the whole of his life," he continues. "He also needed to sign a lot of papers.

"I don't think he was immoral, he was just enjoying life."

Part of his enjoyment was the sea. He was a sponsor of seafaring expeditions, including Capt. Cook's voyage that saw the discovery of a group of islands in the Pacific, which Cook named the Sandwich Islands.

They are now known as Hawaii.

The fourth earl was also the First Lord of the Admiralty during the 1770s, responsible for dispatching the British navy.

"One forgets the role of the British navy was formidable," says Montagu. The British empire was spread throughout the world. "They couldn't defend the whole."

And so it was that at the time of such events as the Boston Tea Party, the British navy was elsewhere.

"He assisted the American colonies to become independent," says Montagu, "by being unable to control the seas."

But Montagu would rather see his ancestor remembered for his gustatory discovery rather than his maritime mishandling. That's what drives him in his new endeavor -- perhaps the current Earl of Sandwich can conquer the States with his sandwich shops.

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