The Stage Deli, an institution in New York City, was famous for its sandwiches named after celebrities. Sadly, those mile-high sandwiches have disappeared along with the closing of the Deli. But for a lucky few, whose memory lives on in the form of famous dishes, here are some of the more popular, familiar to all.
Beef Wellington: Who put the beef in Wellington? Controversy abounds. The Duke of Wellington, a war hero who clobbered Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, frequently dined on steak, pate and mushrooms, so after he emerged from his military duties, this rich dish was purportedly created in his honor (what Napoleon dined on is unknown, quite possibly crow). However, some historians pooh pooh that story and insist meat wrapped in pastry dough had been around for centuries, unlike the Duke. (Yes, but did it also include mushrooms and pate?). A possible connection to Wellington, New Zealand also shares the credit.
Oysters Rockefeller: This one is easy. Created by the son of famous New Orleans restaurateur Antoine’s, it was named after John D. Rockefeller, who at the time (1889) was the richest man in America (and the oysters were pretty rich themselves). The original recipe was never shared, hence all future chefs have had to wing it. No one knows if it was a popular item on John D’s dinner table, but we’ll just assume it was.
Cherries Jubilee: Nobody was named Jubilee, but this special dessert was probably created by renowned chef Auguste Escoffier, who prepared the dish for one of British Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations (she lived a long time), widely thought to be the Diamond Jubilee in 1887. When this flaming delicacy wasn’t setting the dining hall’s draperies on fire, it was savored by royalty in both England and Europe.
Eggs Benedict: Certainly not named after the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold, there is a bit of competition concerning its origin. Well-known New York City restaurant Delmonico’s claims ownership way back in 1860, but a gentleman named Lemuel Benedict insists it was his creation after ordering a full plate of breakfast foods, topped off with hollandaise sauce at the Waldorf Hotel, 34 years later.
Caesar Salad: A San Diegan named Caesar Cardini owned a restaurant called Hotel Caesar in Tijuana during Prohibition, thus enabling him to serve alcohol during the 1920s. It was in his kitchen that this popular salad was created. Californians flocked there to munch on Romaine lettuce, anchovies and a special dressing; diners could also enjoy a cocktail or two. (author’s note: as a San Diego resident, I can assure readers that these days no one travels south of the Border for any kind of salad, trust me.)
Chicken à la King: Not named after Elvis, but once again, debates among historians and king-sized egos offer up several versions; a Philadelphia gentleman named William King insisted it was his creation in 1915; another American, James Keene, argued that he came up with it, but chicken a la Keene just didn’t quite cut it (maybe Keene Chicken would have worked). Then Keene’s son Foxhall (would I make that up?) backed up his father’s story in the 1890s; well-known hotel chef George Greenwald insisted he concocted it for wealthy hotel residents Mr. and Mrs. E. Clark King II at the Brighton Beach Hotel in New York. So there you have it. You decide, and if your last name is King, you could also get into the act.
Lobster Newberg: A Captain Ben Wenberg, who discovered a delightful seafood dish in his worldly travels, brought back the recipe and offered it to Delmonico’s, a thriving restaurant in New York City during the late 1800s. The chef happily recreated it for the Captain after tweaking the rich ingredients a bit, and named it in his honor. Fast forward several decades, when the two men had a falling out (perhaps too much or too little cream, no one knows) and the offended chef renamed it; there was no one named Newberg, it just sounded better. A first cousin to Lobster Thermidor, which we’ll give to the French, who named it after a popular play.
Beef Stroganoff: The first known recipe appeared in a Russian cookbook in 1871 Beef à la Stroganov, with mustard, the name was derived from a Russian diplomat and Minister of the Interior, Alexander Stroganov. It’s doubtful that the diplomat even tasted his namesake, but one would like to think he conjured it up one night while craving beef with sour cream. Many countries have similar variations, including China, all claiming origin, but it remains a mystery. We know for sure that neither explorer Marco Polo or foodie president Thomas Jefferson ever had the pleasure.
Noodles Romanoff: Originally appearing at Romanoff’s, a favorite restaurant back in the mid-1950s, located on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Years later giant Stouffer’s Foods popularized it at their now-defunct restaurants in Chicago, as well as a frozen version (also defunct). A top item on the menu, it featured a sharp Cheddar cheese sauce and sour cream, sinfully rich and delicious by any standards. Sadly, it has virtually disappeared and must be made from scratch for those who still crave it.
Brandy Alexander: Some sources recognize the Russian Tsar Alexander II as its namesake, but more likely it was named by Troy Alexander, a bartender at Rector’s, a New York City restaurant. Seems he wanted to create a white drink for a dinner celebrating Phoebe Snow, a fictitious character portrayed as a New York socialite who was a spokeswoman for a railway and always wore white (you figure it out). Regardless of the origin, it remains a delicious dessert drink made with creme de cocoa, cream and brandy, purported to have been legendary Beatle John Lennon’s favorite cocktail.
Chateaubriand: A tenderloin of beef named for a French ambassador and viscount in the early 1800s by his personal chef, the Viscount Chateaubrant hailed from a region in France bearing the same name; a large cut of prime steak, it’s usually served as a meal for two, accompanied by a rich sauce and potatoes, but apparently the Viscount had a hearty appetite and polished it off alone, leaving Mrs. Viscount to fend for herself.
These timeless dishes memorialize their namesakes in the history books and top foodies’ hit parades. But take heart. There is always room for more, so start cooking and you, too, could become a famous food for years to come.