A quest to find the WASP-iest morning dish of all
The term “WASP” refers to a stereotypical subset of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants: blue-blooded, old-monied, and Puritanically minded. I’m fifth-generation Irish Catholic with celiac disease: I can’t even eat white bread, let alone be it. But in the service of Extra Crispy, I stiffened my upper lip and attempted to adopt the Protestant work ethic in a quest to uncover the quintessential WASP breakfast food.
I started with Big Data™. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, “mainline” white Protestants favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by eleven percentage points. Trump, although nouveau riche by WASP standards, touts his Presbyterianism on the campaign trail and certainly buys into some of the major WASP stereotypes (chiefly a delusional belief that he is a self-made man). So, what does The Donald eat for breakfast?
The answer, according to the man himself, is distressingly simple: nothing. “I try and avoid breakfast, actually,” Trump told Fox News earlier this year. Not a helpful answer, but not an uncommon one for WASPs, either. Ali Wentworth’s out-of-print WASP Cookbook provides recipes for thirty different WASPy occasions (“Prep School Send-Off,” “Vineyard Antique Show Cocktails,” etc.), but only one of them, “Croquet Breakfast,” even mentions the forbidden meal. The fare she suggests there seems less than filling: blueberry muffins, fruit salad, something called a “feathered egg nest”... perhaps WASPs just aren’t that into breakfast?
I needed to speak with someone who’d delved deep into the collective WASP psyche, so I called up legendary playwright A.R. Gurney, American Theater Hall of Fame member, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and author of such incisive portraits of WASPdom as The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour. “WASP culture is in decline nowadays, as I’m sure you know,” Gurney told me. “But something that used to be de rigueur, at least in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up, was shredded wheat.” Gurney’s grandfather even had a special trunk designed so he could bring shredded wheat with him whenever he traveled to Europe. “To begin the day without shredded wheat was [considered] unhealthy, and rude, and not to be tolerated.”
Shredded wheat made sense: healthy, austere, and elitist inasmuch as it was indigestible on a biological level to me, a non-WASP. Still, Gurney cautioned, his view stemmed from his Buffalo upbringing: “Someone in Cleveland or Chicago might not know what I was talking about.” Enlightened, but wondering whether a more universal truth was out there, I thanked the playwright for his time and returned to Wentworth’s cookbook.
The only other two morning-time events Wentworth describes are brunches (for baby showers and racquetball, obviously). It wasn’t much, but at least I had something more to go on: like goths, WASPs appreciate brunch. Indeed, the term “brunch” was first coined by WASPs in 1895 and became associated with WASP culture as a meal to replace the usual after-church fare among the monied class.
If I could identify a single dish on the breakfast side of all the WASPiest establishments’ brunch menus, I reasoned, perhaps I could back my way into a broader answer. Sure enough, whether it was at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, Market House on the Square in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, or the Blue Ribbon Café at the Inn Walden outside of Cleveland, every brunch locale in traditional WASP bastions offered its patrons eggs Benedict: pork of some kind (usually Canadian bacon), poached eggs, and Hollandaise sauce served on an open-faced English muffin.
Like a croquet player staring down a column of wickets after a few too many gin and tonics in the hot afternoon sun, the pieces fell into place for me. One of the upper-class women in A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room asks her cook to prepare her poached eggs for breakfast at home. Ali Wentworth’s cookbook mentions offhandedly that “at a restaurant [for brunch]... all the WASPs order Eggs Benedict.” And, depending on whom you ask, the dish either evolved out of the “Eggs a la Benedick” recipe of Delmonico’s Restaurant, first published in 1894, or was first ordered by a Princeton-educated stockbroker fighting off a hangover at the Waldorf Hotel in that same year.
The idea that a hungover stockbroker might have tried to pass off a hip downtown restaurant’s dish originally devised by immigrants as his own at an exclusive bastion of WASP privilege sounded stereotypically WASPy to me. The current Waldorf-Astoria Hotel has embodied blue-blooded prestige since it opened in 1931. And even though the building is now owned by a Chinese insurance conglomerate, WASP America still pretends it’s got a stake in the place. If there were ever a place to determine what the quintessential WASP breakfast food was, it would be the Waldorf.
When I called the hotel to ask if they would let me carry in a gluten-free English muffin to test out their Eggs Benedict, they equivocated. They had “several gluten-free bread options available,” they said. I sighed, combed my hair, put on a blazer, and booked a table. Once again, I would be locked out of the true realm of WASP-dom, but I supposed I could see if the pale shadow of the real thing offered any insights.
To my surprise, the Waldorf’s own story behind their (expensive) eggs Benedict described the original recipe as featuring “buttered toast,” and buttered gluten-free toast was precisely what they used to serve me their signature dish. Suffice it to say, it was decadent, finely crafted, and lifted immeasurably by the sense of privilege it conveyed. Truly, this was the WASPiest breakfast food. All that remained for me to do was to pay the bill, fight the urge to pick up some pleated khakis, and scuttle back to the subway before some passing patrician could recognize me for the interloper I was.