The Origins of Eggs Benedict Are a Gilded Age Mystery
When a restaurant has been around for almost 200 years, it earns the right to brag about its history. Delmonico’s, located in Manhattan's Financial District, has certainly racked up a long list of accomplishments since it was founded in 1837 by the Swiss-born Delmonico brothers. The restaurant's current executive chef, Bill Olivia, likes to call it a restaurant of firsts. Delmonico's was the “First restaurant to use the word restaurant," he told me. "First restaurant to use tablecloths. First restaurant to use printed menus. First restaurant to hire women."
Delmonico’s also claims to be the first restaurant to serve eggs Benedict, which, quite frankly, seems like a pedestrian milestone for a place that pioneered the concept of using fancy linens to wipe food off of people's faces. After all, eggs Benedict is a fairly simple dish, with only four components: eggs, bacon, English muffin, and hollandaise sauce. But the origin of the eggs Benedict is and steeped in the lore of New York City’s Gilded Age, when robber barons ran the town and fine dining consisted of multi-course meals and bespoke menu cards. The true history of the eggs Benedict is as murky as the identity of the human who created the eggs Benedict in the first place.
According to Delmonico’s legend, eggs Benedict was created for and named after restaurant regulars Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict in the 1860s. “What I know is simply that Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict came all the time,” chef Olivia said. “They had eaten everything on the menu, they were tired of the menu, and they asked the brothers to create something new.” So the Delmonico brothers, along with their chef, Charles Ranhofer, created the eggs Benedict as we know it.
We know what was in Ranhofer's original eggs Benedict because he included the recipe in The Epicurean, his 1,200-page encyclopedic cookbook that was published in 1894. It was meant to provide future chefs with everything they need to know about starting and running their own fine-dining restaurant. It includes thousands of recipes, many of which were created by Ranhofer and served at Delmonico's. (Lobster Newburg, for instance, was another Ranhofer original. Much like eggs Benedict, it was also named after a Delmonico's regular.)
Ranhofer’s original recipe for eggs Benedict, then called Eggs à la Benedick, stands the test of time. The dish, as described in the book over 120 years ago, is basically what’s still served at restaurants today:
Now this seems like a straightforward enough origin story, and one that's ostensibly hard to dispute, given that the first published recipe for eggs Benedict appeared in Ranhofer's book. But Delmonico's isn't the only New York City institution to lay claim to the dish.
“We like to think that the eggs Benedict was really invented at the Waldorf, the original Waldorf-Astoria by the great Oscar of the Waldorf,” said Marc Ehrler, the corporate chef of the Americas for Hilton Worldwide, former owners of the New York City hotel. "Oscar of the Waldorf" is Oscar Tschirky, who was working at the Waldorf-Astoria when it opened and served as its maître d' for decades. Tschirky's presence became so synonymous with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that, according to his obituary in the New York Times, there's at least one occasion when “he had forgotten his own name" since he was so used to being referred to as "of the Waldorf."
In the Waldorf version of the story, eggs Benedict was created by a so-called “young blade named Lemuel Benedict." A short article from the December 19, 1942 issue of the New Yorker traced the origins of the eggs Benedict to the dining room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel 48 years earlier—coincidentally, the same year Ranhofer’s The Epicurean was published. As the story goes, Benedict arrived at the hotel for a late breakfast, slightly incapacitated:
Tschirsky heard about Benedict's creation, loved it, and wanted to put it on the Waldorf's breakfast and lunch menus—but he put his own twist on it first. According to the New Yorker, “Oscar’s version of Eggs Benedict substituted ham for bacon and a toasted English muffin for toasted bread." But apparently, Benedict wasn't stoked about the change in carb. While in retirement outside of Stamford, Connecticut, he told the writer of the 1942 article, "English muffins are unpalatable, no matter how much they are toasted or how they are served."
The Waldorf's version of the eggs Benedict origin story has, over time, become the more popular of the two—in no small part, it seems, because of the New Yorker article, which has been cited by the New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, and Wikipedia. "At the end of the day, the Waldorf-Astoria seems to own the eggs Benedict," Ehrler explains, and gives full credit to Oscar of the Waldorf. "Without Oscar, the eggs Benedict would’ve been like too many other dishes. He made it timeless. He created something extraordinary on that dish. And he told the story," that of a hungover man looking for a cure that was only available at the hotel.
Here's the twist: Before he was Oscar of the Waldorf, Tschirsky worked at Delmonico's as a waiter and likely overlapped in the kitchen with Ranhofer. And while there's no evidence that Tschirsky stole the recipe from Delmonico's and brought it over to the then-new Waldorf-Astoria, it's not totally out of the question, especially since the recipe for eggs Benedict was already in print by the time Lemuel Benedict showed up at the Waldorf after a long night of drinking. "I think at this point, the only one who really knows the answer to this is Oscar and he took it with himself," Ehrler said.
But the reason the eggs Benedict has endured all of these years isn't because Tschirsky told a good story. "I think the reason the eggs Benedict is timeless is because of its simplicity," Ehrler said. Olivia agreed, adding that hollandaise sauce, which is made of butter and egg yolk, "is fat, and you’re adding fat on an already rich egg and ham, and it tastes good. I always say that people like fat. Fat tastes good." Ultimately, people keep ordering eggs Benedict because it tastes delicious, not because of its provenance—and that's something folks from both restaurants can agree on.