Eggs Benedict: A History Lesson

on December 5, 2013
Eggs Benedict
Isobel Wield

Beef Wellington US coverThe following essay is excerpted from James Winter’s Book, Who put the Beef in Wellington?: 50 Culinary Classics, Who Invented Them, When and Why. The book is one of our favorites of 2013 and featured in our 2013 Holiday Gift Guide for the Serious Home Cook.

The year was 1890-something; Manhattan was a thriving, bustling island. Wall Street was emerging as the smart road to work on. Guys called John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan had set up shop and people were trading shares daily, while a man named Charles Dow (later to hook up with Edward Davis Jones and become synonymous with the New York Stock Exchange) kept track of the dozen or so stocks in his reports. This was a time of furious creation. Just two blocks south from Wall Street was Delmonico’s, a restaurant as ritzy as New York could get. In charge of the kitchen was a Frenchman called Charles Ranhofer, but he was no run-of-the-mill French chef: he’d been sent to Paris at the age of 12 to study pastry, and by 16 he was running a kitchen for Charles d’Hénin, the Count of Alsace, at his ancestral home of Château Bourlémont in Lorraine. By 20, he was cooking in New York for the Russian consul and in 1862, still only 26, he was in charge of Delmonico’s.

Ranhofer liked to invent and New York was the perfect playground. He was able to combine classic French techniques with New World pizzazz to draw a heady crowd, including the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. Ranhofer liked to name new dishes after his favorite diners and had already been responsible for Lobster Duke Alexis (a rich bisque made for the Russian Emperor), veal pie à la Dickens (yes, that Dickens), and a pistachio-crusted chicken dish named after French President Sadi Carnot. He’s credited with making Baked Alaska the dish it is today and Lobster Thermidor.

The man was the Heston Blumenthal of his day, the perfect combination of showmanship and technique. He also loved a challenge. One particular day around 1890, the challenge was set him by a Delmonico’s regular, a stockbroker called LeGrand Lockwood Benedict.  Having done a few deals in the morning, LeGrand settled down to lunch with his wife Sarah. It is now that the story gets hazy. Some say it was LeGrand himself who asked Ranhofer to show him something new, others say that it was Sarah who, with the maître d’, discussed a concoction of poached eggs, hollandaise, ham, and bread.

This latter version was described in a letter to The New York Times magazine in 1967 by a Mabel C. Butler, who claimed to be related to Sarah Benedict. Mabel was contradicting an article by the paper’s food expert Craig Claiborne, which reported that the dish was first made by a Commodore E. C. Benedict while living in France. To this day, descendants of both Benedict families claim the legacy. In yet another variant, the inspiration is a New York stockbroker called Lemuel Benedict, alleged to have been served the eggs in the Waldorf Hotel some years later (1894) when he walked in demanding a hangover cure.

Whatever the truth may be, in 1894 Ranhofer published his great work, The Epicurean, and included a recipe for Eggs à la Benedick [sic]. In so doing, he effectively claimed the dish as his own creation. Two years later it appeared in Fannie Farmer’s revised edition of the bestselling Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. While inclusion in Ranhofer’s book put the dish firmly on the road to international culinary fame, Farmer’s endorsement meant that it reached nearly every housewife in the country. At some point it even attained the status of having its own special day—in the United States April 16 is National Eggs Benedict Day.

The dish’s popularity—at any time of the day and with or without a hangover—has led to copy after copy. Variations range from Eggs Florentine (with the addition of spinach) through Eggs Provençale (the hollandaise is replaced by béarnaise sauce) to Artichoke Benedict (the eggs nest on the leaves of a globe artichoke rather than a muffin). The Irish even have a version which includes corned beef.

Here is a classic take on Eggs Benedict from Who put the Beef in Wellington?

Related: Eggs Benedict
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