By Michael Nagrant
They say you always remember your first. And were we talking about a kiss, I remember sitting on a recessed bench filled with orange life jackets on the second level of the Boblo Island ferry leaning towards my sixth grade “girlfriend” Monica. I remember the stench of rotting sea life from the Detroit River and the paprika scent of Better Made BBQ potato chips mingling with the floral waft of Giorgio perfume from her neck (though I suspect it was the Parfums de Coeur Designer Imposters knock-off—after all what 12-year-old can afford the real thing?) as we hesitantly merged our lips. Were we talking about sex, I remember that too, but kissing and telling is one thing, getting laid and doing so is quite another.
What I’m really talking about here is my first Eggs Benedict, the legendary English muffin raft conveying tasty castaways of salty pork and jiggly poached eggs awash in waves of silky hollandaise. And of that, I do not remember my first.
Though, I suspect it was at an all-you-can-eat buffet, one of those restaurant-larder-clearing affairs featuring an orgy of tangled snow-crab legs, a miserable checked-pant-wearing short-order cook manning a butane-fired omelet station and mountains of chartreuse-rinded unripe cantaloupe. That means my first Benedict was likely a steam-table-parched muffin topped with Canadian bacon parchment and a sulfurous over-fried egg mottled with a gloppy, broken mock-hollandaise. Thankfully I subscribe to the idea that you try everything twice, because you never know if the first example was cooked right. Over the years, the dish has become such a favorite that like the crabcakes before, and the sweetbreads and foie gras that took their place, a Benedict is a dining certainty, a breakfast must-order.
Victory has a hundred fathers, and as such, the historical origins of the Benedict are murky. Depending on what or who you believe, either somewhere in the 1860s, a New York socialite, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, no doubt the Paris Hilton of her day, was bored and could find nothing to her liking on the menu at Delmonico’s, so she summoned the chef Charles Ranhofer, who invented the dish to keep her at bay.
Or, in 1894, Lemuel Benedict, a Wall Street banker, allegedly entered the Waldorf Hotel dining room and ordered up “some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs and a hooker of hollandaise” to soothe his wicked hangover. Though Benedict may have been a ruthless nineteenth-century Gordon Gekko, I assume by “hooker” he meant “vessel” and he wasn’t going all Eliot Spitzer and ordering up a prostitute named Hollandaise. The Waldorf’s legendary chef, Oscar Tschirky, allegedly loved the request so much he put it on his menu, substituting Canadian bacon and a toasted English muffin in his final version.
There are other stories of the origin, though none quite as colorful, and as origins go, spectacular mythology usually triumphs over the dry truth anyway. One thing that is true is that it says a lot about humanity that so many would battle for immortality in a breakfast dish.
Though, there are some Chicago chefs who probably deserve immortality, forty virgins or whatever their idea of heaven is for their ways with the Benedict. Frank Georgacopoulos of Meli Café (301 South Halsted) is one of those chefs. He and his cooks re-make their Hollandaise multiple times throughout the morning to ensure freshness. Likewise, the staff and owners blind-tasted and put multiple egg brands through their paces before settling on Eggland’s Best Organic eggs for their version. Meli offers eight different benedicts, which are all good, but the classic is my favorite.
Featuring two English muffins topped with roasted filet, crispy leeks and porcini hollandaise, the Bongo Room’s (1152 South Wabash) beef tenderloin Benedict is probably the only time I’ve ever indulged in that 1950s diner ideal of steak and eggs. Though as tasty as this version is, I imagine Jack Kerouac would have kicked me upside the head for chowing on such precious gourmet breakfast fare.
My favorite Benedict though is the slightly twisted “Eggs Flo” from Flo (1434 West Chicago). This plate of French-toast-like brioche with thick, grilled smoked-turkey steak drizzled with leafy ribbons of fresh spinach, topped with two poached eggs, lemony hollandaise sauce and asiago cheese makes me wish I were a morning-radio personality just so I’d be guaranteed to be out of bed in time to snag a plate more regularly.
Just as some deserve paradise, there are some who belong with the heretics in the flaming tombs of the sixth circle of Dante’s conception of hell for their transgressions against the doctrine of great Eggs Benedict. One Sunday morning at West Loop’s Wishbone (1001 West Washington), probably in an assembly-line-like effort to sate the slavering masses oozing out the door and onto Morgan Street, I was presented with a wet dog Benedict. The hollandaise was diluted and the muffins soggy with murky poaching water. On second thought, these cooks might only belong in the more forgiving third circle of hell with the gluttonous. For, as in mediocre pizza, bad sex or a sloppy first kiss, in even the worst Eggs Benedict I can always find some beauty.