The History of Eggs Benedict

This is a rich breakfast dish, which brings to mind the relaxed dining in an expensive hotel restaurant (or ordered through room service).  It consists of two halves of a toasted English muffin, a slice of ham, a poached egg, smothered in Hollandaise sauce.  (Sadly, the closest many people have come to Eggs Benedict, is a MacDonald’s Egg McMuffin, which swaps out the Hollandaise for melted American Cheese.)

The dish is worth every bit the effort to make it. Too bad it’s history is so muddled with alternating stories all around the end of the 1800’s.

On December 19, 1942, in the column called “Talk of the Town” in The New Yorker Magazine one of the origin stories of eggs Benedict is offered.

5thAve_WaldorfAstoria_Interior_PalmGarden_1902

Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Interior Palm Garden 1902

The story, as published:

“Forty-eight years ago Lemuel Benedict came into the dining room of the old Waldorf for a late breakfast. He had a hangover & ordered buttered toast, crisp bacon, 2 poached eggs, & a hooker of hollandaise sauce, & then & there put together the dish that has, ever since, borne his name, Eggs Benedict.”  “ Oscar Tschirky, the famed maître d’hôtel, was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus but substituted ham for the bacon and a toasted English muffin for the toast.”   

The year that Lemuel Benedict cited would have been around 1894.

In 1896 – Fannie Merritt Farmer’s (1857-1915) revised, edited, and reissued Mary J. Lincoln’s cookbook called The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. In it is a recipe for Eggs à la Benedict. The recipe is as follows:

Eggs à la Benedict – Split and toast English muffins. Sauté circular pieces of cold boiled ham, place these over the halves of muffins, arrange on each a dropped egg, and pour around Hollandaise Sauce II , diluted with cream to make of such consistency to pour easily.”

In September, 1967, in an column in The New York Times Magazine, Craig Clairborne wrote about a letter he had received from an Edward P. Montgomery, regarding a recipe given to him by his mother, who had received it from her brother, a friend of the Commodore E.C. Benedict, a banker and yachtsman, who died in 1920, at the ripe age of 86 years old. Presuming that the Commodore was in his 30’s when the dish was created in his name, the year would have been around 1894.

Two months later, (November 1967)  in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times Magazine, Mable C. Butler of Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts corrected Mr. Clairborne’s accounting of the origins of Eggs Benedict.   She claimed to be a relative of Mrs. Le Grand Benedict.  Mr. and Mrs. Benedict dined every Saturday at Delmonico’s.  She asked the maitre d’hotel if there were anything new to suggest. He asked her what sounded to her.  She suggested poached eggs on toasted English muffins, with a thin slice of ham, hollandaise sauce and a truffle on top.

To back this version up, Delmonico’s Chef Ranhofer published a recipe called Eggs a’ la Benedick (Eufa a’ la Benedick) in his The Epicurean cookbook called The Epicurean published in 1894.  His Eggs à la Benedick recipe:

“A round of cooked ham an eighth of an inch thick and of the same diameter as the muffins one each half. Heat in a moderate oven and put a poached egg on each toast. Cover the whole with Hollandaise sauce.”

The problem is, as with all food history, and all invention history, for that matter, great ideas are often considered by different people, at the same time.  It is possible that multiple people came up with the same idea at the same. It is possible that some version of this recipe was published in one of the many magazines or newspapers of the day.  Or, it is possible that some of these people were related, ran in the same circles (as they dined in expensive restaurants) and one, or several heard of the dish, and was curious to try it.  . It is also possible that Mr. and Mrs. Benedict had heard of the dish suggested by Lemuel Benedict (or visa versa).  Perhaps they were related?  Perhaps the combination was obvious given the food trends of the era was an obvious one.  Sometimes food combinations invent themselves.  After all, who really invented peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?  Obvious pairings are meant to be together.

Eggs Benedict for Two

4 fresh English muffins

8 pieces of thin sliced lean ham cut into rounds the size of the muffins

8 eggs

¾ of a cup of Hollandaise sauce

Lightly toast the muffins then spread them with butter. Grill the ham and place one piece on each muffin.  Poach the egg by bringing 4 cups of water to a boil, then reducing the heat to simmer.  Crack an egg into a soup ladle and gently lower the eggs, individually into the hot water.  Roll the eggs over to keep the whites close to the eggs. Cook to desired doneness (although, ideally, the egg yolk should still be somewhat runny).    Place the Canadian Bacon on the muffing, add the poached egg on top, and smother the whole thing with several tablespoons of Hollandaise sauce.  Serve

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