Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict is not a new concoction by any means, though for many years I had only the fuzziest sense of what they were. They persisted in my mind as yet another example of "fancy cooking", part of that pantheon of vaguely-exotic dishes that constituted the American version of gourmet dining in the 1960s and 1970s. Things like Beef Wellington, Lobster Newburg, Cherries Jubilee, and Baked Alaska. Most of them I knew only from reading, or perhaps from the occasional wedding reception dinner or as the punch line to lame jokes ("there's no place like chrome for the Hollandaise . . .").

Many of these sorts of dishes have roots as far back as Delmonico's and the grande cuisine of the Gilded Age. During the culinary revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s, they were portrayed as representing everything that was insipid and tired and wrong about so-called "gourmet" dining in America. They were cast aside sneeringly by young celebrity chefs seeking the freshest greens and exotic spices and inventive new devices for creating tall food. Most are museum pieces that can rarely be found outside the odd business banquet or small-town country club dining room.

Not so with eggs benedict. They are back in a big way and, if anything, appear to be growing more popular with each passing month, driven, I am convinced, by the popularity of the Sunday brunch. And the reason is simple: they are the perfect hangover food.

There was a time in my life when hangover food meant a bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit from Hardees and a cup of luke-warm leftover keg beer ("Dude, put a little ice on it and it'll be good as new!"). These days, hangovers are much less frequent and my dining budget a bit larger, but the same principles apply. Apart from large doses of Ibuprofen, two items more than any other seem guaranteed to salve the pain of the morning after: greasy food and a little hair of the dog.

The classic Sunday brunch beverages are the mimosa (orange juice and champagne) and the bloody mary (tomato juice, vodka, and a bunch of spices). These are just breakfast drinks mixed with alcohol, a little hair of the dog wrapped up in morning-time respectability.

And what about Eggs Benedict? They are essentially the same as that bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, just gone uptown. English muffin instead of biscuit, poached egg instead of fried, and Canadian bacon instead of the old strip kind. Actually, I've got that a bit backwards, since Eggs Benedict have been around for more than a century--at least as far back as the late 19th Century. (One common story, which displays all the typical hallmarks of a last minute improvisation, has stockbroker Lemuel Benedict wandering into the Waldorf Hotel in 1894, seeking to cure a hangover, and ordering toast, poached eggs, bacon, and hollandaise sauce, which was later added by the maitre d' to the menu, with English muffins and ham substituted for the toast and bacon.)

The bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit is, if anything, Eggs Benedict gone slumming. And, in fact, the McDonald's Egg McMuffin was based upon Eggs Benedict. It was created in 1972 by Herb Peterson, a McDonald's franchisee who suceeded in taking Eggs Benedict down-market by replacing the hollandaise with American cheese.

Old-fashioned Eggs Benedict are enjoying a resurgence in the American culinary scene. And not just the classic egg, Canadian bacon, and English muffin combination. Here in Charleston, The Sunflower Cafe makes a mean Benedict with spicy sausage and sauteeed peppers (pictured above). Down at Vickery's, you can soothe the previous night's mistakes with a crab-cake Benedict while looking out over the shrimp boats in Shem Creek. Several local restaurants--including Poogan's Porch and The Bookstore Cafe (or is that the Charleston Cafe, or the Charleston Bookstore Cafe?)--offer a quintessential Southern twist on the classic Benedict, with fried green tomatoes replacing the bacon.

Gone are any connotations of the musty past of wide-lapeled suits and formal 1960s dinners. I am hooked on my Benedicts, even on a regular Sunday morning when I'm out with the kids and haven't even the slightest hint of a headache. Creamy eggs, tangy hollandaise, and the chewy English muffin base are a sublime combination sure to kick off your morning with a smile.

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