Notable Sandwiches #3: The Notorious B.E.C.
A love letter to a New York signature: the bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.
Onward we traipse through Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches! I’ve been working on a heavy series on child abuse that will appear in your inbox for the next several Mondays, so it’s doubly excellent, if slightly jarring, to take a break and contemplate a beloved sandwich: the bacon, egg and cheese. My editor David Swanson did most of the heavy research lifting on this piece, so I owe him gratitude (and a sandwich).
Early last year, the bacon, egg and cheese had something of a cultural moment in the sun, intertwined with its extant status as a New York City staple. In February 2020, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared on Showtime with fellow Bronx natives Desus & Mero, hitting up a Parkchester bodega, and revealing a contentious preference (which I share!) for cheddar on a her BEC. That same month, Margot Robbie and the DC blockbuster Birds of Prey gave the sandwich the Hollywood treatment, framing a slapstick Harley Quinn chase scene with a slow, luscious pan over a greasy griddle. By the summer of 2020, a Bodega Boys-branded BEC ice cream was released. At that point, the sandwich’s status had been cemented, with it joining the ranks of the dirty water hot dog and the utility pizza slice in the pantheon of Big Apple cheap eats.
I’ve had any number of BECs, pronounced “baconeggncheese,” during my time in New York — from bodegas, street carts and bagel shops, some memorable, some mediocre, but always satisfying and often delicious. When I was an office worker, the breakfast carts that congregated around the World Trade Center were often the saviors of my chronically-late ass, allowing me to funnel some caffeine and carbohydrates into my wretched morning body with speed and convenience. It’s never been my favorite breakfast order — the tuna bagel retains that proud and unshakeable status — but its ubiquity, portability, and proteinaceous heft make it a solid go-to. There’s also the apocryphal but persistent legend that BECs cure a hangover, to which I say — perhaps in your 20s, when greasy food suffices to cover any measure of sins. Despite its stature, the Wikipedia page for the BEC is pretty sparse; we’re told the composition of the sandwich (which are contained in its name, plus bread), the caloric value of an “average” BEC, and, for some reason, the low-carb, fast-food and Hot Pocket versions are discussed. Sure, the Egg McMuffin, introduced in 1972, deserves mention, but I’m not sure why the anonymous authors of the B.E.C. article were so concerned with grams of fat. It’s an unpromising and dry way to discuss such an important sandwich. (Because Wikipedia is a fundamentally democratic enterprise, any of my readers are encouraged to amend this stinginess on their own.)
We New Yorkers love our bacon, egg and cheeses, and are, as a result, slightly insufferable about them, as we are about most things. The city is also home to an absolute cacophony of media outlets, so it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to figuring out just how strong the association is between this city and a sandwich with worldwide appeal. The origin of the breakfast sandwich lies across the waves in Britain, where newly-industrialized workers in the 19th century needed a quick meal on the go, and street vendors arose to supply soft, egg-filled baps perfect for soaking up bacon grease. According to Breakfast: A History, by Heather Arndt Anderson, the first American breakfast sandwich was codified by one Maude C. Cooke, in 1897, in her cookbook “Breakfast, Dinner and Supper: Or, What to Eat and How to Prepare it.” Her version contains scrambled eggs, bread and unspecified “chopped meat.” (Anderson calls Cooke’s book “delightfully garish,” and, curious, I took a look, finding to my delight that it provides instruction to the gourmand seeking to prepare frogs’ legs, woodcocks, hare, beef olives, frizzled mutton, molded creams, devilled veal, baked turtle, tutti-frutti candies, and much more of astounding variety, with diagrams -- all this in addition to pioneering the breakfast sandwich! The estimable Maude also offered lessons in bicycle etiquette, but I severely digress.)
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There’s a reason Maude didn’t specify bacon as her meat: The ubiquity of bacon in the American breakfast came a few decades later in the 1920s, as a deliberate campaign sponsored by the hog-farming industry to boost bacon sales. It was pioneered by the evil genius Edward Bernays, the “Father of Modern Public Relations,” and a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays, seeking to subvert then-fashionable American habits of downing a bowl of cereal and some coffee for a light breakfast, turned to the medical profession, surveying five thousand doctors about the benefits of “heavy breakfasts” and publicizing the favorable results widely — along with the indelible combination of bacon and eggs. (Bernays also enabled, via PR, Chiquita Brands International to stage a coup overthrowing the government of Guatemala, thus originating the phrase “banana republic” — so those who prefer fruit at breakfast are not free of his machinations either.) At any rate: enter the BEC, stage right, where it has endured ever since.
What’s the best BEC? You’ll be unsurprised to know that my assertive New York City compatriots have a lot of opinions about this. Seriously. A lot. Chef Wylie Dufresne likes his steamed in the foil on an onion Kaiser roll. Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang favors a version with “Calabrese aioli.” New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells would like you to stop — STOP! — making upscale versions involving feta and lamb sausage and brioche. Probably a lot of New York celebrities have more opinions, but I’m mostly just going to pretend this breakfast-obsessed Pinterest user is actually Anna Wintour.
My favorite BEC, if you’re curious, is slightly heretical, in that I prefer tangy cheddar to the engineered-to-melt American cheese ; I like it doused in hot sauce; and I like it on an everything bagel, because the delicate softness of a good egg scramble pairs best with that boiled-bread bite. One of the best features of living in a large and bustling city is the frequent convenience of life, the bustling buffet of available delicacies and curiosities, but these choices can be overwhelming. The BEC represents a solid, reliable bulwark against decision paralysis, imbuing a sense of surety as snug as its foil wrapper.