Untangling the mysterious eggs Benedict creation story

Photo via Delmonico's

Untangling the mysterious eggs Benedict creation story

History + Culture

Untangling the mysterious eggs Benedict creation story

I was 8-years old the first time I experienced “brunch.” Back in the early 90s, it was something reserved for rich people who were members of golf clubs, or starving churchgoers who needed to refuel after having sat through an hour or more of religious services. And it only ever occurred on Sundays; if you woke up past 11am on a Saturday and craved French toast, you were generally shit out of luck.

The restaurant we went to felt extremely brunchy — palm fronds in pastel planters in the corner, silk flower centerpieces, waiters who wore white tuxedo jackets. We sat under an atrium. It felt like I was dining in the very large parlor of a dead Victorian woman.

After learning that brunch was an ingenious combination of the words “breakfast” and “lunch,” I studied the menu before me. I asked my parents about the menu’s most expensive item, eggs Benedict, and they convinced me I wouldn’t like it, which was likely because of the high price tag, but it also probably made sense at the time – a meal of pillowy eggs with a slightly runny center smothered in hollandaise sauce, sitting over Canadian bacon and an English muffin, probably was an inappropriate meal for an second grader. I stuck with the silver dollar pancakes.

Brunch became a “thing” when I was in college. Charleston, South Carolina, prides itself on its brunch culture, and I was able to order as many variations of eggs Benedict as my heart desired. I’d always assumed it was of British Origin, named after Benedict Arnold. The combination of ham, eggs, thick yolky sauce and something that sat basically on a janky crumpet felt like something Southerners would have commandeered after the Revolutionary War.

It turns out that eggs Benedict is a local legend in my own hometown, New York, and one deeply rooted in some serious hospitality industry drama.Moving past the lie I had lived with my entire life, I decided to dig deeper and figure out what old rich New Yorkers were thinking when they came up with such a combination of carbohydrates, cholesterol and saturated fats.

Three theories exist as to who invented eggs Benedict. The “oldest” one comes from Delmonico’s, America’s “first fine dining restaurant” opened in 1837. It’s known for a lot of firsts in culinary history; it was the first restaurant to offer private dining rooms, the first to allow women to dine without a male chaperone, and apparently the first place to ever use table cloths in America. The restaurant’s culinary firsts also include Baked Alaska, Lobster Newburg, and Chicken A La Keene.

Photo by Paul Wagtouicz

Delmonico’s doesn’t have a firm date as to when eggs Benedict was invented; their website states that “In the 1860’s, a regular patron of the restaurant, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, told chef Charles Ranhofer there was nothing to her liking and she wanted something new for lunch. Eggs a’ la Benedick was the result.

While Chef Ranhofer started working at the restaurant in 1862,.according to The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, LeGrand Benedict and his wife, Sarah Collier Benedict, weren’t married until 1881; Benedict, who eventually became a member of the New York Stock Exchange, was born in 1855, Collier Benedict in 1856; so unless the couple had a pre-teen date at Delmonico’s in 1869, the vague 1860s timeline doesn’t really add up.

That doesn’t mean eggs Benedict wasn’t on Ranhofer’s mind at the time the Benedicts were looking to try something new. Based on his contributions to the culinary world, The main source of written evidence denoting Delmonico’s invention of the dish lies in its inclusion in Ranhofer’s 1894 cookbook, The Epicurian, which celebrates some of his best dishes.

Yet, right around the same time as Ranhofer published his cookbook, a young stockbroker named Lemuel Coleman Benedict walked into a legendary hotel with a wicked hangover – and the second origin story of eggs Benedict was born.

In 1942, an article published in The New Yorkerprovided a testimonial from Mr. Lemuel Benedict, who allegedly ambled into Waldorf Hotel in 1894, a barely year-old establishment originally located at 5th ave and 33rd street. Too late for a proper breakfast, but too early for a real lunch, he had the chef whip up a massive hangover helper: two poached eggs, bacon and buttered toast topped with hollandaise sauce.

The new concoction became one of the hotel’s signature dishes, remaining on its menu even after it moved to 301 Park Avenue in 1931 to open what we know now as the Waldorf Astoria.

Photo by Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts

And it’s all thanks to Oscar Tschirsky, the maitre d’hotel at the time. “Oscar of the Waldorf” was a lauded hospitality legend. His career at the hotel helped bring the Waldorf Salad, Red Velvet Cake, and the Martini to popular acclaim. Here’s where the story gets more complicated: Tschirsky got his start in the restaurant business at Delmonico’s.

Delmonico’s hired Tschirsky in 1887. Proving to be apt at the restaurant business, he became the head waiter for the restaurant’s private dining rooms. Though there’s no record, it’s very likely he may have waited on the LeGrand Benedicts and other Wall Street hot shots.

Always on the hunt for the “next big thing,” Tschirsky jumped at the chance to advance his career upon learning of what the Waldorf Hotel aspired to offer. There was likely some sort of bad blood between he and Delmonico’s; not only did Tschirsky write his own letter of recommendation, it was brazenly penned on Delmonico’s stationary, and contained over eight pages of accolades from high-profile restaurant patrons who supported his career move.

This subdued drama may be why there’s such a rivalry between the eggs Benedict origin story today. And while it’s definitely possible that the young stockbroker ordered a heaping plate of carbs, griddle meats, and some kind of weird sauce (the Social Register of New York lists a residential phone number at 145 E. 35th Street, definitely within stumbling distance of the Waldorf Hotel), it’s just as realistic that Tschirsky took a nod from his former workplace and sought to capitalize on the Waldorf’s own version of a dish he used to serve.

The biggest reason why the Delmonico’s origin story actually seems to be legit is because Tschirsky never claimed to have invented eggs Benedict. He may have been integral in raising its popularity and establishing it as “the” go-to upper class brunch item, but as far as it having been invented at the Waldorf Hotel, apart from Lemuel’s account and an overzealous campaign lodged by a distant relative, even Oscar of the Waldorf himself didn’t take credit.

“…Oscar of the Waldorf, who plays such a key role in that account, never confirmed the story, despite ample opportunity to do so,” Gregory Beyer mentions in his profile of the eggs Benedict origin story for the New York Times.

One last theory involves another New Yorker, a banker and yachtsman by the name of Commodore E.C. Benedict. His contribution first came to light in 1967, when New York Times food columnist Craig Claiborne received a note from Edward P. Montgomery, a distant relative of The Commodore. In it was a recipe that had been “passed down” through his family, but with little more attribution than that.

The Commodore lived an incredible life; his obituary described him as a man who “loved long cruises in strange waters” and that he had “once shipwrecked.” He built up his fortune after becoming a clerk on Wall Street at the age of 15. One of his good buddies happened to be President Grover Cleveland.

Between maintaining his financial empire and cruising through the Amazon River, did he really have time to invent a quintessential brunch dish?

The Commodore’s alleged recipe wasn’t much a departure from the one we know today – it included ham and toast, but the hollandaise sauce included a “hot, hard-cooked egg and ham mixture.” Maybe he’d whipped up the ingredients on a far off voyage, or maybe he enjoyed the dish so much after dining at Delmonico’s or the Waldorf Astoria that he felt compelled to replicate it in his own home.

Hell, maybe he wanted to be known for a brunch dish enjoyed by millions throughout his hometown. But without harder evidence, it’s difficult to attribute the invention of eggs Benedict to The Commodore’s legacy.

Maybe it doesn’t matter who invented eggs Benedict so much as the fact that, in all three instances, the various combinations of ingredients were assembled in New York City, by New Yorkers, with enough New York City drama and legend to host its own reality TV show. That makes eggs Benedict one of the New Yorkiest New York foods, something to certainly toast at your next Bottomless Brunch.

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