The long and surprising history of the egg and whatever sandwich

A McDonald's Corp. Sausage McMuffin with egg is displayed for a photograph in New York, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. McDonald's Corp., the world's largest restaurant company. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

That sound you hear at 11 a.m. Tuesday – those exultant cheers swiftly muffled by mouthfuls of English muffin, bacon, egg and cheese? They are the victory cries of thousands of McDonald’s breakfast lovers, who for the first time in 43 years will (officially) be able to consume Egg McMuffins at whatever time of day they deem fit. These are heady times, people.

But, as we celebrate the triumph of breakfast over the oppressive forces of socially-mandated mealtimes, it’s worth remembering that McDonald’s is neither the only or the first fast food provider to dish up the portable, delectable combination of egg, meat, cheese and bread.

Breakfast sandwiches have been easing early morning routines since long before the golden arches ever graced an American skyline. Their rise to prominence parallels the emergence of the modern worker – overworked, underpaid and hungry. And their unfailing success, regardless of time period or time of day, is a testament to two essential facts: everyone needs breakfast, and everyone is too busy to make it themselves.

The story begins in the early 19th century, on the smoggy streets of East London, explained breakfast historian Heather Arndt-Anderson. Seeing a need for a cuppa and a quick bite among the legions of factory workers trudging to work each morning, street vendors began to set up stalls to serve them. Patrons would swiftly down a mug of coffee, hand the mug back to the vendor, then walk away with a sandwich.

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It enclosed classic breakfast foods – a fried egg, meat, sometimes cheese – between two halves of a soft roll called a “bap.” The bread would sop up and contain the egg yolk and bacon or sausage grease, turning the elements of an English breakfast into something that could be easily eaten on the go. The bap sandwiches proved popular, and the merchants who sold them made a killing.

“It was easy to have the rolls ready to go, there’s not a lot of construction and it’s low-cost to prepare,” Arndt-Anderson said. “It was a really profitable thing to make.”

It didn’t take long for the breakfast sandwich to cross the Atlantic. As in England, the sandwich was the breakfast of choice for people pressed for money and for time. Railroad workers ate their breakfast fare wrapped in wax paper. According to a Dec. 26, 1895 article about staffers who had to work on Christmas, The Washington Post’s broke young cops reporter had one with a cup of coffee before heading to his desk.

On the wagon trail west, travelers ate an American variation called the “Denver Sandwich”: an omelette filled with diced ham, onion and green pepper folded between two slices of white bread. It was, according to the the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, the first truly American breakfast sandwich, though it was not always eaten in the morning. And it too may have started out as a way to feed hungry laborers; food writer James Beard believes that the Denver Sandwich traces back to a sandwich prepared by Chinese chefs at railroad gangs and logging camps, who adapted it from the traditional Egg Foo Yung.

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That the breakfast sandwich came about at the same time as industrialization was no accident – it was solidly a staple of the industrial working class. In rural areas, where farmers had a wealth of ingredients available to them and a day of backbreaking work ahead, breakfast was typically hot and huge, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia: breads sweetened with syrup, waffles, pancakes and popovers, deep-fried fruit fritters, an array of meat and fish, potatoes in various forms and coffee, tea or hot chocolate all appeared on rural tables, sometimes all at the same time.

But for workers at factories, construction sites, mines and logging camps, for whom food budgets were tight and kitchen access often non-existent, a portable meal that could be eaten en route to work was essential.

The link between a taste for the breakfast sandwich and the state of the worker is so inextricable there have been sociological studies on it. A 2011 report from Ireland attributed the popularity of the “jumbo breakfast roll” (a half baguette stuffed with fried or grilled sausage, bacon rashers, blood pudding, a fried egg and ketchup) to the proliferation of construction jobs during the country’s “Celtic Tiger” boom years. At its height, the sandwich was so ubiquitous that a song about it by comedian Pat Shortt was for six weeks the top song in Ireland, bumping Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” off the charts.

After the Second World War, when American culture veered toward the casual and convenient, the time was ripe for the commercialization of the breakfast sandwich. The 1950s and ’60s saw the rise of instant coffee, Pop-Tarts and Carnation Instant Breakfast smoothies, as well as fast-food joints like 7-11 and International House of Pancakes that catered to an on-the-go morning crowd.

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Their success caught the attention of more traditional fast food chains looking to expand their repertoire. In 1971 (or perhaps 1969, the date varies by account), the California-based chain Jack in the Box debuted the first modern to-go breakfast sandwich: egg, meat and cheese on an English muffin.

A year later, McDonalds began offering a similar concoction, dubbed the Egg McMuffin. According to company legend, it was the brainchild of California franchisee Herb Peterson, who loved Eggs Benedict and wanted to recreate the dish without the mess of Hollandaise sauce. The result was a broken-yolked egg cooked in a round Teflon frame, then piled onto a buttered English muffin with cheese and a slab of Canadian bacon.

Peterson put the sandwich on a plate and served it to McDonald’s President Ray Kroc during a visit.

“He didn’t want me to reject it out of hand, which I might have done, because it was a crazy idea – a breakfast sandwich,” Kroc recalled in his memoir. “. . . I boggled a bit at the presentation. But then I tasted it, and I was sold. Wow!”

McDonald’s breakfast was a breakaway success. Within a few decades, it accounted for a quarter of the chain’s sales – even though it was only offered for five or six hours out of the day.

For a long time, the chain stopped serving McMuffins and the rest of its breakfast offerings at 10:30 – eggs and hamburger patties need to be cooked at two different temperatures, and it didn’t make sense to keep a separate griddle for eggs running all day. But the past few years have seen a dramatic decline in revenue, and this summer McDonalds announced it would be losing a net 125 stores in the coming year.

A few weeks after that, the company caved, announcing that a limited list of items from the breakfast menu would soon be available until closing.

“This is the consumers’ idea. This is what they want us to do,” Mike Andres, McDonald’s USA President, told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s why I think this could be the catalyst for our turnaround.”

That McDonalds is now turning to all-day breakfast – and the breakfast sandwich – to ease its financial troubles is no surprise to Arndt-Anderson, the food historian. Although demand for other fast food products has flatlined, breakfast is one of the few sectors of the industry that’s still growing. Now, as always, people need to eat. And now, as always, working Americans lack the time in the morning to cook for ourselves.

“There’s kind of a long history of breakfast being part of fast food menus,” she said. “When restaurants are suffering economically they know they can rely on breakfast to keep them afloat.”