Eggs Benedict is a breakfast staple at virtually every posh restaurant and corner café you care to enter, and is a dish only a little over a century old, yet no-one is quite sure of its history. It is likely that we will never be sure who the original ‘Benedict’ was, but it is fun attempting to unravel the various claims.
It seems pretty certain that the dish was ‘invented’ in the late nineteenth century in New York. It is very certain that it was not named for the American Revolutionary War general, Benedict Arnold (1741-1801). It is also a good bet that the idea of muffin / ham/ poached eggs/ Hollandaise sauce was based on an existing idea that was tweaked and re-named – because that is the way recipes are always ‘invented’. It is even possible that the existing idea is much older, and that the ‘Benedict’ is a reference to the Benedictine monastic order, not an individual New Yorker.
So, who is the real Benedict, and who was the inventor? The chief protagonists for putting together the original idea are the maître d’hôtel of the Waldorf, Oscar Tschirky, and the chef at Delmonico’s, Charles Ranhofer - either perhaps being inspired or instructed by the mysterious Benedict him/herself.
One of the major claims begins with Lemuel Benedict, a retired stock broker and regular at the Waldorf, who claimed to have presented there one morning in 1874, with a hangover. He thought that a plate of buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon and Hollandaise sauce would just do the trick. The famous ‘Oscar of the Waldorf’ supposedly thought the idea was good enough to offer other customers, but substituted an English muffin for the slice of toast and Canadian bacon for the ham.
A second claim is that the dish was named for Commodore Elias Cornelius Benedict (1834-1920), a New York City baker and yachtsman. This version is ‘authenticated’ via a long chain of participants – the Commodore gave the recipe (presumably his own invention) to a friend who gave it to the mother of one Edward P. Montgomery, who gave it to her son, who told it to Craig Claiborne, who wrote about it in The New York Times Magazine in 1967.
Yet a third set of claimants hotly dispute that of Montgomery. Friends of a certain Mr. and Mrs. Le Grand Benedict – also prominent New Yorkers of the time – say that they were regular diners at Delmonico’s, and the dish was invented there. Mrs. Benedict asked for something new one day, and when asked what she would like, suggested toasted English muffins topped with ham, poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce - with a truffle on top.
Up to this point, the evidence is all hearsay and claim and counterclaim. There is a little more circumstantial evidence to factor in, although I am not sure what conclusions to draw. Both Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf, and Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s published cookery books in the late 1890’s. There is nothing like Eggs Benedict in Tschirky’s The Cook Book (1896), which would reduce the Waldorf’s claim significantly, I would think. The book did include recipes for both eggs poached with béchamel sauce and for cod with hollandaise – the significance of which I hope to show might be more significant than at first glance. Ranhofer did include a dish called Eggs à la Benedick in The Epicurean (1894), which I give below, but it did not include the truffle insisted upon by Mrs Le Grand Benedict, and I find the spelling a little strange, if the dish was indeed named in their honour. As background, a previous chef at Delmonico’s, Alessandro Filipini, did not mention the specific dish in his One hundred ways of cooking eggs (1892), although he does have eggs a la béchamel (using hard boiled eggs) and poached eggs with bechamel – the latter dish including truffles.
As for the proto-type or inspirational dish, there is perhaps an interesting connection with the cod recipe. The Larousse Gastronomique (first published in 1938, I am quoting from the first English edition of 1961) has “Bénédictine: Garnish suitable for poached fish or eggs. It is composed of a brandade of [salt] cod and truffles”, and also describes “Eggs à la bénédictine (soft boiled or poached): Pound some cod with garlic, oil and cream, and some chopped truffles. Arrange the eggs on the mixture and mask with a cream sauce.” Elizabeth David references this dish of œufs bénédictine in her wonderful work French Provincial Cooking and notes the poached eggs and brandade of cod, but also includes potatoes, and specifies Hollandaise sauce. In support of the bénédictine–cod association is Escoffier’s Morue à la bénédictine.
So, who or what is the bénédictine referenced in these French sources? The connection with salt cod suggests it was the Benedictine monks, as salt cod was a mainstay of the many fast days of the Catholic calendar, so a large part of the monks’ diet. Egg sauce with fish – especially cod – goes back a long, long way, so it is not too far a step to making the eggs the feature, I guess, serving them with a white creamy sauce, and then a rich eggy Hollandaise. The ham is an outrageous step away from Lenten fare of course, so sufficient to justify a whole new name, perhaps.
As usual, I eagerly await your comments on all of this. Now, I give you Ranhofer’s recipe – the earliest one I can find specifically named Benedict.
Eggs à la Benedick.
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 on each half. Heat in a moderate oven and put a poached egg on each toast. Cover the whole with Hollandaise sauce.
The Epicurean, Charles Ranhofer, (New York, 1894)
Next I give you Mrs. Rorer’s rather confusing instructions in Many Ways for cooking Eggs (1907) – I have no idea what is meant to be done with the egg mixture cooked in the muffin rings [it appears that this is in fact the muffin]. I am, however, intrigued that the dish does have the truffle, so fits the story of Mrs. Le Grand Benedict at Delmonico’s.
Separate two eggs. Break the yolks, add a cupful of milk, a half teaspoon of salt, one and a half cupfuls of flour and a tablespoon of melted butter. Beat well, add two level teaspoonfuls of baking powder, and fold in the well-beaten whites. Bake on a griddle in large muffin rings. Broil thin slices of ham. Make a sauce Hollandaise. Chop a truffle. Poach the required number of eggs. Dish the muffins, put a square of ham on each, then a poached egg and cover each egg nicely with sauce Hollandaise. Dust with truffle and serve at once.
Quotation for the Day.
I'm frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I've never tasted it.