It would be natural to assume that everyone’s favorite brunch dish (isn’t it?), Eggs Benedict, was named after an actual person. But, there are so many stories about who this person we simply can’t be certain who invented the dish.
Also possible is that the dish is a modern rendering of an old French dish, and the name Benedict doesn’t derive from a person, but from the word Benedictine. However, since this word refers to the Order of Saint Benedict (Benedictine Order), we could say that the dish was named after Saint Benedict of Nursia.
One thing that we can set aside is any notion that the dish was named after Benedict Arnold, the Revolutionary War general who became the most famous American traitor in history after he defected to the British army and became a general for the other side, leading troops against those he once commanded. He lent his name to the very idea of being a traitor, but he did not lend his name to this dish, so you can eat your Eggs Benedict without feeling like you are disloyal to your homeland.
An Old French Dish?
Kathy Martin, in the book Famous Brand Names and Their Origins, offers up the following evidence for Eggs Benedict having derived from a much older French dish. First, Mrs. Isabella Mary Beeton, in her 1861 Book of Household Management, features “Dutch Sauce,” which is an old alternative name for Hollandaise sauce, the reasons for which should be obvious. Martin claims that the book contains a reference to “Dutch Sauce, for Benedict.” I have found this reference repeated on several websites which also mention that this reference is followed by “Green Sauce, or Hollandaise Verte.” If this were true it would perhaps provide evidence that a recipe existed before the earliest dated reference to the dish being invented in New York.
However, the book is available in digitized form on Google books, and on page 195, I find an entry for “Dutch Sauce, for fish” followed by “Green Sauce, or Hollandaise Verte.” I have been unable to find any reference to “Benedict” in the book. It may be that this appears in later updated versions of the book which have been conflated with the original 1861 version, but I cannot confirm whether this is true. For now, I think it is safe to dismiss this.
Martin also mentions a much more important book, French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David. According to this book ‘oeufs benedictine’ is a traditional French dish of fried bread topped with pureed salt cod and potatoes, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce. According to Martin, the word Benedict together with the ingredients, eggs and salt cod, suggest that the dish may have been eaten by Benedictine monks during Lent. 1 This was also mentioned on several of the websites, suggesting that the authors are repeating Martin’s claims, without reference.
David’s book was not published until 1960 but it is considered authoritative and well-researched by such important culinary figures as James Beard and Julia Child, who also wrote a preface.
It turns out, after some further digging, that many chefs have referred to Eggs Benedict as Eggs Benedictine or Benedictine Eggs. James Beard in The New James Beard has two separate references, Eggs Benedict, the modern dish we are concerned with, and Eggs Benedictine, the cod version. 2 Even Escoffier’s Le Guide culinaire described eggs Benedictine as a salted codfish dish served with cream sauce. 3 I have found plenty of other references to a salted cod or scrod and eggs topped with cream sauce. One book from 1908, Explanations of All Terms Used in Coockery [sic] has two different Benedictine dishes, one which is a gratine of poached scrod, eggs, potatoes, and milk, and another which resembles the modern Eggs Benedict, complete with “muffin” and Hollandaise sauce (but adding truffles). 4
More Contemporary Version of Eggs Benedict Origin
Again, we can’t be sure, but the origin stories do have one place in common, New York City. The two most common stories involve the famous Delmonico Restaurant and the Waldorf Historia Hotel.
According to this story, a regular customer Delmonico’s, a financier named LeGrand Benedict complained to the maître d’hôtel that there was nothing new on the menu. From here, there are many different versions of how the dish came about. According to some, including Julia Child, Chef Charles Ranhofer responded to her complaint by creating the dish. Another claim is that Mrs. Benedict herself suggested the dish. And, in 1978, Bon Appetit stated that Mr. and Mrs. Benedict invented the dish at Delmonico’s. 5
Another popular claim is that the dish was invented at the famous Waldorf-Historia on 34th Street in New York. In 1894 a man-about-town named Samuel Benedict came into the Waldorf nursing a terrible hangover. Either with a hankering, or some arcane knowledge of egg-based hangover cures, he ordered, more or less, the components of Eggs Benedict: two poached eggs, buttered toast, bacon, and some hollandaise sauce on the side. Taken by the combination, Oscar, the maître d’hôtel made up his own version with ham or Canadian bacon instead of bacon, and English muffin instead of toast, naming it after the hungover lounge lizard who had inspired it. In other versions of this story, Benedict was a stockbroker with the first name of Lemuel. 6
One other Benedict said to have invented the dish was Commodore Elias Cornelius Benedict, a banker and yachtsman from New York. 7
All of these stories seem to have been suggested by persons who wrote in to a magazine claiming to know who invented the dish. There is no way to verify these claims. On the other hand, the fact that there existed similar older dishes as described, and that these dishes can be easily verified through print sources, makes it almost certain that today’s Eggs Benedict derived from older dishes, and that the name came from the Order of Saint Benedict.
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- Martin, Kathy. Famous Brand Names and Their Origins. Pen & Sword History, 2016.
- Beard, James. The New James Beard. Knopf, 1981.
- Escoffier, A. Escoffier – Le Guide Culinaire – The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery. Translated by H. Cracknell and R. Kaufmann, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997.
- Heppe, Kurt. Explanations of All Terms Used in Coockery – Cellaring and the Preparation of Drinks: Pocket Dictionary. K. Heppe, 1908.
- Ternikar, Farha. Brunch: a History. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
- Freeman, Morton S. New Dictionary of Eponyms. 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Hayes, Justin Cord. The Terrible Meanings of Names: or Why You Shouldn’t Poke Your Giselle with a Barry. Adams Media, 2013.