Food History & Recipe Origins
The world’s favourite brunch dish, eggs Benedict comprises an English muffin cut in two, each half topped with ham, a poached egg and a dollop of hollandaise sauce. Various Benedicts claim to have invented it.
In 1942, the New Yorker published an interview with one Lemuel Benedict, a retired New York stockbroker, who told the story of his breakfast one day at the Waldorf Hotel back in 1894.
Unimpressed by the menu and with a thumping hangover, he asked for ‘buttered toast, poached eggs, crispy bacon and a hooker of hollandaise.’ According to Benedict, the maître d’, Oscar Tschirky, was so taken with the dish that he immediately included it on the hotel menu, replacing the toast with a muffin and the bacon with ham.
But this is disputed by a letter sent to The New York Times in September 1967 by Edward P. Montgomery, who suggested the dish was in fact the idea of Commodore E. C. Benedict, a yachtsman and retired banker, who died at the age of eighty-six in 1920.
Montgomery insisted he had the original recipe, which he included in his letter, saying it had been given to his uncle, a close friend of the Commodore.
Publication of this letter prompted further claim, this time from Mabel C. Butler of Massachusetts, in which she insisted that the ‘true story’ behind the original recipe was ‘well known to the relations of Mrs Le Grand Benedict,’ of whom she was one. (Relation that is)
According to Mabel Butler, when the Benedicts lived in New York City, at the turn of the century, their habit was to dine regularly at Delmonico’s Restaurant. One morning Mrs Benedict complained that the menu had become too familiar and suggested more variety.
As she was a regular customer, the head chef asked the good lady what she had in mind, to which she replied: ‘I would like poached eggs on toasted English muffins with a thin slice of ham, hollandaise sauce and a truffle on top.’
Each tale was firmly believed by its narrator and but it is equally likely that all three were referring to a dish that had been around for a lot longer, probably going by a different name. What is certain is that printed recipes for the eggs Benedict were beginning to appear from the turn of the century.
In Eggs, and How to Use Them, published in 1898 and subtitled ‘A Guide for the Preparation of Eggs in Over Five Hundred Different Styles,’ the reader is encouraged to ‘split and toast some small muffins; put on each a nice round slice of broiled ham, and on the ham the poached egg; then pour over some creamy Hollandaise sauce.’
Meanwhile, in 1900, the Connecticut Magazine printed a similar recipe, suggesting readers should ‘Broil a thin slice of cold-boiled ham … toast a slice of bread and butter it and moisten with a little water; lay the ham on it and upon that a poached egg.’
However, it turns out that this all-American dish could well have been European in origin. Elizabeth David, in French Provincial Cooking (1960), refers to a traditional French dish called oeufs à la bénédictine and consisting of puréed fish and potatoes on fried bread with a poached egg on top.
So maybe eggs Benedict was originally a sort of full French breakfast enjoyed by Benedictine monks on days when they were forbidden to eat meat? (They’d have been tucking into a full English otherwise, given half a chance.)
These days there are many variations on the theme, including eggs florentine (the ham substituted by spinach), seafood Benedict (the ham replaced with crab, lobster or prawns) and waffle Benedict (with a waffle instead of the muffin and lashings of maple syrup in addition to the hollandaise).
Eggs Benedict Arnold, in which the muffin is replaced by an American biscuit (a bit like an English scone) and the hollandaise sauce replaced with gravy is very curiously named for such a staunchly American dish.
Benedict Arnold was a general during the American Revolutionary War of 1775–83 who famously switched sides and fought for the British.
One of the most hated figures in US history, his name has since become a byword in America for treason.
Albert Jack books available for download here