What could be more blissful than delicately poached eggs and Canadian bacon on an English muffin, all bathed in a luxuriously creamy hollandaise sauce? Add a Bloody Mary to the mix and you’ve achieved brunch nirvana.
You would be hard pressed to find a dish more decadent than Eggs Benedict. From my first introduction many years ago at the swanky Palm Court in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, I’ve been hooked. Eggs Benedict is a dish that’s good for both the psyche and soul. It is the sophisticated apex of comfort food. It’s all about indulgence, throwing caution to the wind for an almost celestial synergy with your food. Some days are for yogurt and an egg white sandwich, but some days are for reaching for the sublime.
Eating great food is one of the pleasures of life and the experience never fails to pique my interest in the origin story. Somehow, knowing the history enhances my appreciation of the dish.
So where did this delicious dish originate?
As with many classic dishes, there’s no real consensus on who made it first, where, or when. Much has been said, but little has been settled. Cookbooks contradict each other. Witnesses are dead. Even the renowned Oxford English Dictionary punts: “Origin US” and nothing more. What remains is a recipe for over a century that has come to represent something greater than the sum of its ingredients.
One thing is certain: all the conception stories share decidedly genteel roots. Rich and distinguished New Yorkers, legendary New York restaurants, and a venturesome 19th century dining culture unconstrained by present day concerns about trans fat or cholesterol.
Eggs Benedict History, Part One
There is the Lemuel Benedict story which appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1942, two years before Lemuel’s death. As related to the reporter, he said that in 1893 or 1894 he ordered toast, poached eggs, bacon, and a pitcher of hollandaise sauce at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City as a cure for a nasty handover. Subsequently, Waldorf’s famous maitre d’hotel, Oscar Tschirky, decided to add it to the menu with a couple of changes: a toasted English muffin instead of the toasted bread and ham instead of bacon.
Eggs Benedict History, Part Two
Another claim (at the turn-of-the-century) also goes to Commodore Elias Cornelius Benedict, a noted yachtsman and New York banker. According to a letter in 1967 from Edward P. Montgomery, an American living in France, to New York Times food writer, Craig Claiborne, a recipe for the dish was passed on directly from the Commodore to a friend who passed it on to Montgomery’s mother. Being a banker and stockbroker in New York in the 1890s, it could stand to reason that he was hanging out in upper class circles and was introduced to the dish.
Eggs Benedict History, Part Three
After Claiborne’s column appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mabel C. Butler of Massachusetts offered the claim that Mrs. Le Grand Benedict, who dined weekly at the world famous Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, once asked the maitre d’hotel if he would suggest “something new or different.” In turn, he asked if she had a preference. She responded by ordering poached eggs, English muffins, ham and hollandaise sauce, topped with a truffle. Depending on the year, the maitre d’ could have been Oscar Tschirky (aforementioned) who worked at Delmonico’s prior to 1893.
This letter is the sole “evidence” for an article in 1978 in Bon Appetit magazine enshrining the Le Grand Benedict story as the Eggs Benedict origin.
Of course all of this leads to questions.
In 1894, a short story titled “The Rich Fool and the Clever Pauper” appeared in the January issue of a California literary magazine. It was a work of fiction by Horace Annesly Vachal, a British expatriate living in San Francisco.
The story is about a fictional character named Jimmy dining at the posh Union Club in San Francisco.
His lunch “consisted of Blue Points and egg a la Benedict.” This is considered the first written allusion to Eggs a la Benedict as poached eggs over toast with ham and hollandaise.
For this story to be published in January 1894, Eggs a la Benedict had to be known in certain circles at least in late 1893. But why didn’t the 1894 rendition of The Epicurean, the Delmonico cookbook that features every recipe ever served at the restaurant? Why is it never mentioned until its second printing in 1912? For that matter, why didn’t Oscar Tschirky’s 1896 Waldorf Astoria’s Cookbook never mention it?
The first written recipe appears in 1897 in the February issue of Table Talk magazine. It was written by Cornelia Bedford, the former principal of the New York Cooking School.
Another bump in the origin story is that Oscar (of the Waldorf), who plays a key role in the story, never confirmed it, despite ample opportunity to do so. Oscar had no aversion to publicity: he took credit for creating the Waldorf Salad and Thousand Island dressing, but he never mentioned Eggs Benedict by name or description.
In the end does it matter who “concocted” the first Eggs Benedict? The journey can be as much fun as the destination. The problem with food history is that great ideas are often considered by different people at the same time. It is possible that some version of this recipe was published in one of the many magazines or newspapers of the day. Or is it possible that some of these people were related, ran in the same circles (fancy restaurants), and one or several heard of the dish and were curious to try it? It is also possible that Mr. and Mrs. Le Grand Benedict had heard of the dish suggested by Lemeul Benedict (or vice versa). Perhaps the combination was obvious in an era of lavish rich food. Don’t you think sometimes that food combinations invent themselves? Did someone really invent peanut butter and jelly (uh-oh another research project)? Certain pairings are fated to be together. Perhaps Eggs Benedict is not a 100% invented dish but an evolution.
What I do find heartening is that a rich dish devised for rich people (with exclusive creation myths) has over the years been democratized and now is a staple brunch item everywhere: from haute cuisine temples to casual restaurants on the beach and everything in between.
I am quite sure that almost everyone reading this article has indulged in Eggs Benedict at their favorite brunch or lunch spot. If you ever want to take it up a notch, here are my inductees into the Eggs Benedict Hall of Fame (no particular order).
The Palm Court
This was my first, just like your first kiss. Beautiful room inside the iconic Plaza Hotel. Straightforward dish that hits all the notes.
The Palm Court
768 5th Avenue
New York, NY
Exemplary dish, the velvety hollandaise taking it to brunch greatness. This is plate licking stuff.
253 West 11th Street
New York, NY
Hail chef Gabrielle Hamilton! Vinegar-simmered poached eggs with griddle-warmed Canadian bacon and a supremely buttery, cayenne-zapped hollandaise. And the best Bloody Marys in NYC to boot!
54 East 1st Street
New York, NY
A sophisticated nod to the original with the prettiest courtyard in the French Quarter.
417 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA
Totally classic. Sunday jazz brunch is a rite of passage in New Orleans.
813 Bienville Street
New Orleans, LA
Have a classic Eggs Benedict while dining on historic River Street in Savannah, GA….all with New Orleans flare.
115 East River Street
A charcoal-infused hollandaise turns the ham and poached eggs jet black.
425 Washington Boulevard
Jimmy’s Eastside Diner
No frills, old-school diner with poached eggs that burst upon contact with a fork.
Jimmy’s Eastside Diner
7201 Biscayne Boulevard
Classic Eggs Benedict! The pièce de résistance! It is petit déjeuner for a lazy day! Our American classic….though pardon my French, I got carried away thinking about my next Eggs Benedict.