It was while Anna and I were enjoying the Eggs Benedict in the Art Deco surroundings of High Road Brasserie in Chiswick that we began to wonder about the history of the dish. Who first had the brainwave that poached eggs, English muffin, ham and hollandaise would go so well together?
So we decided to find out…and it turns out the story of Eggs Benedict is one of mystery and controversy, set in the most decadent restaurants, hotel kitchens and apartments of turn-of-the-century Paris and New York.
I had assumed Eggs Benedict was an Italian, English or French creation for some reason – I’d linked it in my head to Benedictine Monks, but it turns out our favourite breakfast treat is ‘as Yankee as the Americas Cup’…
What’s almost unanimously agreed is that the recipe was born in the United States – specifically New York City, and we can be pretty specific about the date too – either 1893 or 1894.
It was a good time for America. The so-called ‘Gilded Age’ had produced the greatest period of economic growth in the country’s history following the end of the civil war. In 1890 the upstart colony had leapt ahead of its British motherland in terms of manufacturing output. The Great Depression was 30 years off, now it was the epoch of the tycoon, and two people called Benedict – seemingly unrelated – were clinging onto the expensive coat-tails of those tycoons. One was the wife of a respected member of the elite, living off her husband’s fortune and enjoying the high-life of an aristocrat in New York City’s burgeoning social scene. The other was a playboy stockbroker, making high stakes gambles on the emerging superpower’s turbulent stocks and shares.
The two competing stories go something like this:
1893: LeGrande Lockwood Benedict and his wife would eat every Saturday at Delmonico’s, which was the city’s first restaurant or ‘public dining room’. Mrs. LeGrand Benedict was tired of the usual fare at the restaurant and said to the maître d’hôtel, “Haven’t you anything new to suggest?” He said he’d like to hear some ideas from her, to which she suggested poached eggs on toasted English muffins with a thin slice of ham and hollandaise sauce, and a truffle on the top. With the help of the Chef Charles Ranhofer this is what she was served, and Mrs LeGrande Benedict’s relatives are adamant this is the recipe which has travelled around the globe.
1894: A hungover Wall Street broker, whose name was Lemuel C. Benedict was having breakfast at the Waldorf Hotel (which was then on the site currently occupied by the Empire State Building). He ordered “buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and a hooker of hollandaise.” Oscar Tschirky, the famed maître d’hôtel (who invented the Waldorf Salad and Thousand Island Dressing), was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus but substituted ham and a toasted English muffin for the bacon and toast.
So which is more likely to be true? It’s very hard to tell from the various entries on Wikipedia and by doing a simple Google search, so – as a journalist by trade – I decided to dig a bit deeper. What I found surprised and amused me – and hopefully brought me slightly closer to the real truth about his man, and his eggy hangover survival strategy.
Click here to read the next installment!