I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Who Invented Eggs Benedict?
It's been wisely noted that success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. So it is that several claimants have stepped forward as the inventor of eggs Benedict, but nobody seems to want to take credit for starting the kale craze.
Eggs Benedict 101
In case you've never had brunch, the basics of eggs Benedict from the plate up are:
- Two halves of a toasted English muffin
- A couple of slices of back bacon or ham
- Two soft poached eggs
- A topping of Hollandaise sauce
There are scores of variants, as people mess about with—sorry, enhance—the classic.
- Eggs Florentine substitutes bacon/ham with spinach.
- Eggs Montoya uses filet mignon instead of bacon/ham.
- Eggs Royale replaces the bacon/ham with smoked salmon.
- Eggs Chesapeake use crab cakes instead of the bacon/ham.
- Eggs Blackstone adds a slice of tomato.
There are other tweaks to the classic but there is a gaping void in the creations, and that is the absence of rutabaga. To address this oversight, the writer switched out the English muffin for slices of rutabaga. The result was absolutely revolting, although perhaps not the rival in awfulness as eggs Balmoral in which the bacon/ham is supplanted by haggis.
However, the origin of the classic eggs Benedict is shrouded in mystery; the following are some of the suspects.
Hollandaise Sauce Shortcut
You did not read it here, but there are several packaged, dry ingredients for making Hollandaise sauce that take three minutes in a microwave.
The brothers Delmonico opened their eatery in 1837 in downtown Manhattan; the first of its kind in America. It has gone through several incarnations and has always been the go-to dining place for New York's elites with deep pockets.
One of those upper-crust customers was Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, wife of a Wall Street banker, who was in the habit of dining frequently at Delmonico's. It also seems Mrs. LeGrand Benedict became bored with the regular menu items and asked chef Charles Ranhofer to cook something new for her. And, this is where the narrative stops following an agreed upon line.
Some say Ranhofer created the dish, others that the redoubtable Mrs. Benedict gave her instructions to Ranhofer on how to prepare the dish. This birth of eggs Benedict is said to have occurred sometime in the 1860s, or perhaps it was later.
It wasn't until 1894 that the recipe for the dish Ranhofer called Eggs a la Benedick appeared in his book The Epicurean. Here's his method (or is it Mrs. LeGrand Benedict's?):
“Cut some muffins in halves crosswise, toast them without allowing to brown, then place 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.”
So, there you have it; Delmonico's Restaurant gets the bragging rights, or is it Mr. Lemuel Benedict who gets the accolade?
The Waldorf Hotel
In 1942, a story appeared in The New Yorker that related an interview with one Lemuel Benedict. We have to move to uptown Manhattan for this one and into the dining room of the Waldorf Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria) in 1894. There we find stock broker Lemuel Benedict recovering from a night of carousing and in urgent need of a corpse reviver. He turned down the widely prescribed Bloody Mary largely on the grounds that it wasn't created until 1922.
Somewhere, in his booze-addled brain, Benedict concocted his own restorative and placed his order with the kitchen: “buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs, and a hooker of Hollandaise sauce” (Reader's Digest). (A hooker being a jug with an indeterminate amount of liquid somewhere between a splash and a slosh).
The hotel's legendary chef, Oscar Tschirky, thought that Benedict might be onto something but it needed a bit of professional improvement. So, chef Tschirky replaced the toast with English muffins and the crisp bacon with Canadian bacon (there being no other kind of bacon worth considering) et voila, eggs Benedict.
Perhaps the birthplace of what The New York Times has labelled “conceivably the most sophisticated dish created in America” was neither the Waldorf nor Delmonico's.
Commodore E.C. Benedict and a Pope
In 1967, the food critic of The New York Times, Craig Claiborne, weighed in with his own eggs Benny theory. He wrote about a communication with a grumpy-sounding Edward P. Montgomery who was living in Paris. Montgomery complained that in America eggs Benedict too often turned out to be a “concoction of an overpoached egg or a few shards of ham on a—ugh!—soggy tough half of an English muffin with an utterly tasteless Hollandaise.”
Harsh perhaps, but the dish does sometimes arrive at the table as described by Mr. Montgomery who credits Commodore E.C. Benedict as the inventor..
Elias Cornelius Benedict (1834-1920) was a New York financier, yachtsman, and close pal of President Grover Cleveland. Also described as a bon vivant, E.C. Benedict said the recipe for the dish had come from his mother; as she died in 1885, the Commodore's claim certainly predates that of the Waldorf and, perhaps, Delmonico's.
In addition, a vague claim is made for an even earlier appearance of the meal that places its concoction in the Vatican kitchens Pope Benedict XIII in the eighteenth century. But, the Catholic Encyclopedia makes no mention of Benedict XIII having any connection with eggs Benedict, although one would have thought that if the story was true it might have been celebrated as the signature achievement of his pontificate.
So, there are several people who might get the kudos for inventing the classic brunch dish, but nobody knows who should get the wreath of honour.
And please, if you order it, don't ask for ketchup; that could cause some unpleasantness from the direction of the kitchen.
- The stockbroker Lemuel Benedict was no slouch in the kitchen. One of his friends was the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso who used to belt out an aria after tasting one of Benedict's home-cooked dinners.
- For those that think cooking eggs Benedict is too much of a bother, they can do as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson did and have a couple of eggs raw for breakfast. However, our bodies absorb much less of the protein in a raw egg than they do with cooked ones.
- In 1972, a hamburger joint owner named Herb Peterson wanted to add an early morning item to his menu based on his favourite breakfast of eggs Benedict. It was a success, and his boss Ray Kroc loved it and ordered it to be launched nationally. The Egg McMuffin was born.
- “The History of Eggs Benedict?” Sauder's Eggs, August 2, 2019.
- “Classic Eggs Benedict.” eggs.ca, undated.
- “The History of Eggs Benedict.” kitchenproject.com, undated.
- “Eggs Benedict History and Recipe.” what'scookingamerica.net, undated.
- “Who Is the Benedict Behind Eggs Benedict?” Jennifer McCaffery, Reader's Digest, December 10, 2018.
- “An American Classic: Eggs Benedict.” Craig Claiborne, New York Times, September 24, 1967.
- “Lemuel’s Benediction: The Story Behind a Brunch Icon.” Mark Eardley, Daily Maverick, August 9, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor