Rethinking the Breakfast Sandwich

Credit: Courtesy of Egg

Once just something you ordered at Dunkin' Donuts or at an airport before an early flight, the humble breakfast sandwich is having its moment, perhaps. This was never so apparent than earlier this year when food blogs began reporting that a restaurant serving only breakfast sandwiches was going to open in New York’s increasingly precious Chelsea neighborhood. The restaurant would replace a quaint but heretofore reliable Italian place known for its lasagna, and it would sell a variety of egg sandwiches, from the fancy (with lamb sausage and feta) to the classic (with bacon and cheese, albeit on a brioche). The restaurant's owner, whose Pynchonesque name is supposedly Jessica Bologna, had applied for a liquor license as well, pleasantly marrying the cause of a hangover and its cure. 

Breakfast sandwich talk intensified a few months later, in mid-April, when New York Times columnist Pete Wells published "Don’t Mess With My Bacon, Egg, and Cheese," a love letter to the deli staple that positioned it solely as a New York institution, a meal that exists as a rite of passage for every citizen, consumed quickly and anywhere. Wells claimed that no one discusses this part of the culinary landscape, even though everyone eats it. "It doesn’t divide New Yorkers by class, income, or neighborhood," Wells wrote, ignoring the news of the Chelsea shop and its $7 offering that he had just reported paragraphs earlier. "It doesn’t convey status or bragging rights," he argued, despite assigning the sandwich an amount of populist status.


Gawker's response, bearing the same title as Wells's piece, pointed out the arbitrariness of this designation, as well as the poor phrasing of some of Wells's more rhapsodic moments. Not only do people discuss this meal regularly, but they also brag about it incessantly. The author of that post stated his preference as gospel: "Where can the country's best bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich be purchased? The answer is: at Towson Hot Bagel's original location, in Towson, Md., on a toasted everything bagel with an extra egg." Commenters surged forward, unleashing a whole list of options from around the country. Many praised the Wawa Sizzli and a West Virginia establishment called Tudor's Biscuit World, as well as the author's Maryland favorite. Others argued over which was better: a stale roll or a bagel; bacon or sausage; and, of course, Philadelphia indigestion or New York indigestion. If any conclusion was reached, it was that everyone had an opinion, and everyone was right.

The breakfast sandwich has a long history as a convenience food, which shouldn't surprise anyone, as it is a splendid mixture of protein, fat, and comfort. It has been seen as synonymous with work and being on-the-go since at least the early 20th century, if not much earlier in American history. Oxford's Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America calls the Denver sandwich, or the Cowboy as it’s known in some diners, the oldest breakfast sandwich in the United States, with its first print reference published in 1918. But the Denver’s origins are mostly notional. James Beard, for instance, wrote that immigrant Chinese cooks in railroad gangs served the Denver as an Americanized version of egg foo yong in the mid-19th century. Others have claimed pioneers in Western settlements used the sandwich to disguise the taste of tainted eggs. In any case, the Denver is always an omelet on toasted white bread, with green peppers, onions, and diced ham. I’ve had this kind of meal in greasy spoons in my less discerning years. It's pretty gross.

 

But then again, so is the typical bacon, egg, and cheese found in New York delis. That's part of its appeal, to some extent. George Weld, one of the owners of the popular breakfast destination Egg, says the deli egg-and-cheese is the only time his partner Evan Hanczor is "cool with overcooked scrambles." For some, there's a nostalgia attached to the smell of an overdone egg smothered in hot sauce or ketchup, like the smell of nuts at a baseball stadium or the aroma of halal on a street corner. We've put together some much nicer recipes, based on some suggestions from chefs, to satisfy your hunger.

Southern Egg and Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 buttermilk biscuits (you can make this from refrigerated dough; no one will tell)
  • 2 sausages of your preference, sliced
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 slices of Cheddar cheese
  • 2 small tomatoes, either heirloom or hothouse, depending on your taste

Directions 

  1. While the biscuits are baking, according to the package instructions, cook your sausages in a medium saucepan over medium heat until brown and crispy. Set them aside on a paper towel on a plate.
  2. When the biscuits are done baking and are cooling, heat the broiler to 500 degrees F. Cut the tomatoes in half, cross-wise, and put them in a shallow baking pan. Sprinkle salt and pepper over them, and drizzle some olive oil (but not too much), too. Place the tomatoes a few inches from the heat, and cook for about 15 minutes.
  3. While the tomatoes are cooking, scramble the eggs over medium-low heat, in the same pan used for the sausages, for about 5–7 minutes, or until fully cooked. Make sure the eggs are slightly gooey, not too dry. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Cut the cooled biscuits in half, and pile your eggs, tomatoes, and sausage on, in whichever order and whatever quantity you prefer. Top it off with a slice of cheese, and heat the sandwich, either in the microwave or back in the broiler, for several seconds to lightly melt the cheese. Add the top halves back to the sandwich, and eat.

 

“Classic” Bacon, Egg, and Cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 Kaiser roll (or 1 everything bagel, if you’re so inclined)
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 thin slice of cheddar cheese
  • 3 slices of cooked bacon
  • Hot sauce or ketchup, depending on your preference

Directions 

  1. In a cast-iron or nonstick skillet, cook your bacon until crispy and brown. Then set the bacon aside on a paper towel to soak up a little bit of the grease (but not all, obviously).
  2. Slice your roll or bagel in half, and butter the cut side of each half. Using whatever you have at your disposal—toaster oven, griddle, pop-up toaster, whatever—toast the roll or bagel. If you’re using a pop-up toaster, butter your bread afterwards.
  3. Meanwhile, heat your cast-iron or nonstick skillet back up, and melt the rest of your butter. Crack both eggs into the skillet, like you’re making them sunny-side up. When whites begin to set, puncture the yolks with a fork.
  4. Top one of the eggs with the cheese and some bacon. Place your remaining egg, yolk-side down on top of the bacon, as if you were making an egg-on-egg sandwich. Transfer this egg stack onto one toasted half of the roll/bagel, and top it off with remaining half. Serve immediately with whichever sauce you prefer.