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The Toast Sandwich, Culinary Ingenuity in the Industrial Age

Updated on December 28, 2012

A few months ago, researchers in Britain determined that the country’s cheapest meal was the 7.5p “toast sandwich,” which first appears in the Victorian-era cookbook, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The book became a best seller, featuring recipes sent from readers to Mrs. Beeton, who edited the first magazine published for women. After she tested them in her kitchen, the good and economical ones made it into the book. .

The book and recipe very much reflect the time of the Industrial Revolution. Urbanization meant that many of the foods which had previously been readily available to even the poor people were being replaced by mass produced, packaged, and preserved goods. Fresh produce and meat were perishable, and before adequate refrigeration systems, transporting them from the countryside to urban areas, this meant they were also too expensive for the working and middle classes. It was that time period which gave Britain its current culinary reputation, as well as many of its still-recognizable dishes. Fish and Chips is the most classic of these meals, but there are a lot of examples, like the chip butty, comprised of white bread, butter, salt, pepper and chips, or beans and toast, literally canned baked beans (Heinz brand is the most popular) with toasted bread.

In this emerging environment, the toast sandwich was developed. When I read this article, I actually tried a toast sandwich, prepared according to the book’s directions. One piece of bread is toasted, while butter is spread on the side of two other pieces of bread, which are then sprinkled with salt and pepper. Face the buttered sides in toward the piece of toast, which is placed in the middle. It is important to follow these directions, because with any of those details changed, the sandwich becomes just a dinner of approximately 300 calories worth of bread and butter. As it is, though, it is a meticulously crafted ultra-cheap meal’s worth of calories, which actually feels like a genuine sandwich, and which actually does taste good. The different texture, butter, salt and pepper combine to turn the third piece of bread into a sandwich filling. It is a testament to the ingenuity of people of the time, determined to make the most of difficult circumstances, that such a sandwich could be invented.

Honestly, I’d eat one again.

Have you tried a toast sandwich or any similarly interesting food? What did you think?

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