The Truth About Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict is a popular and delicious brunch favorite. Two poached eggs, served on a split English muffin, with each side topped with Canadian bacon and hollandaise sauce — and it goes equally well with a cup of coffee as a mimosa.

The dish gets its name from a family named Benedict. The first Benedict to come to your mind (other than Cumberbatch, who obviously had nothing to do with inventing eggs Benedict), is likely Benedict Arnold. He also had nothing to do with inventing eggs Benedict.

A version of eggs Benedict is credited to Pope Benedict XIII, who served in the Vatican from 1724 to 1730. He was on a strict diet of eggs and toast, and requested it be served with a lemon-based sauce.

During the Gilded Age, which saw the rise of brunch along with the leisure class, two Manhattan restaurants both claim the invention of eggs Benedict (via Atlas Obscura).

The first restaurant, Delmonico's, was a Manhattan restaurant of historical note that was opened in the 1830s by a Swiss family. According to Atlas Obscura, the family told everyone that the columns on the exterior of their building were discovered among the ruins of Pompeii and eventually made their way to the front of their restaurant.

Eggs Benedict is ordered in New York

It was the Gilded Age, so Delmonico's had regulars. In the 1860s, Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict are said to have requested what was essentially eggs Benedict, which then became a popular off-menu item. While that may seem like a very modern situation, again, we are discussing the Gilded Age, which was a period of immense income inequality.

The second restaurant with the claim of inventing eggs Benedict centers on Lemuel Benedict, a man scorned by his wealthy family after he married an opera singer, who then spent his time drinking in taverns with other rich people. He was known as a generous tipper, and for that to make the historical record, he must have been very generous indeed. According to the story, Benedict went to the Waldorf Hotel in 1894, hungover, and asked for, "some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs, and a hooker [approximately two tablespoons] of hollandaise sauce."

What Lemuel Benedict ordered was not exactly the same as the modern eggs Benedict, with regular, and not Canadian bacon, and toast, rather than English muffins. A maître d' at the Waldorf Hotel, Oscar, who had interestingly enough previously worked at Delmonico's and is famous for creating the Waldorf salad, is credited with the switch to Canadian bacon.

The fight for family credit for eggs Benedict

It then gets dramatic. Jack Benedict, the first cousin once removed of Lemuel, was passionate about his family history, and became upset when he found a 1978 article in Bon Apetit that gave credit to the Benedict couple of no relation who dined at Delmonico's. Jack Benedict then made it his life's mission to get the dish credited back to his family (via The New York Times). He opened L.C. Benedict Restaurant & Tavern in Winter Park, Colorado, where he served two versions of eggs Benedict: Lemuel's Way, as his ancestor had ordered it, with regular bacon and toast, and Oscar's way, with an English muffin and Canadian bacon.

Jack Benedict found out Lemuel had a nephew, Coleman Benedict, who was a classics professor at Columbia University. Jack was excited that Coleman was a historian and told Coleman and his wife about his work on the family connection to eggs Benedict, hoping they could help. They were not even initially sure that his claims of being related were true, though they later found the same family photos in his house when they eventually went to visit Jack in Colorado.

The evolution of eggs Benedict

The visit revitalized Jack's enthusiasm for his project, leading him to send a detailed business proposal to McDonald's, suggesting Eggs McBenedict, a breakfast sandwich version of eggs Benedict, complete with a placemat with the back story of Lemuel and his invention of eggs Benedict. McDonald's had already made the Egg McMuffin based on the idea of eggs Benedict so they did not accept Jack's proposal.

Another hitch in Jack's project was that Oscar, the chef from the Waldorf, never confirmed the story, even when he had the opportunity. Many food historians question both stories. Gerald Gliber, a culinary expert at the Art Institute of New York City said of eggs Benedict: "It's an evolution, not a creation."

The American Egg Board, which is the promotional section of the egg industry, does not know for certain where the dish originated. The consumer services director of the board compares it to a game of telephone, also suggesting the possibility that the same person could have walked into two different restaurants and made the same request for a special dish.

The popularity of eggs Benedict, even without a firm origin story, has expanded to include variations such as eggs Florentine, replacing the Canadian bacon with spinach; eggs royale, replacing the Canadian bacon with smoked salmon; and many other variations (via Kitchen Project). Today, eggs Benedict is a staple on brunch menus and in diners everywhere.