The Humble History of the Breakfast Sandwich

Justina Huddleston

Bob Peters/Flickr

It’s the ultimate hangover cure after a night on the town. It’s what you crave when you hit the road at dawn, getting ready for a long drive. And after a sleepless night, nothing goes better with a cup of coffee and your commute than a warm, cheesy breakfast sandwich to-go.

But just because it’s a modern day favorite (McDonald’s all-day breakfast, anyone?) doesn’t mean we should overlook the humble roots of the breakfast sandwich.

Years before your regular brunch spot started serving its version, the breakfast sandwich was a utilitarian, on-the-go meal for factory workers in 19th century London. On their way to the daily grind, downtrodden workers would speedily chug a cup of coffee at a street vendor’s stand, then grab a breakfast sandwich to eat as they made their way to the factory. They were originally called “bap” sandwiches, named for the soft rolls used to hold the egg and meat filling. Sometime bacon or sausage were the main meat component, but a simple slathering of sausage grease wasn’t uncommon.

As the industrial revolution came into full swing in the USA, the breakfast sandwich made its way across the Atlantic. We even got our own version, stuffed with eggs, ham, green pepper, and onion, known as the Denver sandwich (though the the omelet is probably more popular today). Food writer James Beard theorized that it was invented by Chinese railroad workers and loggers who were longing for egg foo young, though other historians think the added ingredients helped mask the taste of less-than-fresh eggs carried by pioneers traveling west. Either way, the breakfast sandwich had become a staple among blue collar workers and travelers alike, and the first recipe (sans cheese) for the sandwich appeared in a cookbook published in 1897.

The breakfast sandwich exploded beyond its worker base in the 1950s and 60s, when post-WWII Americans were obsessed with all things fast and convenient. Why bother making four separate dishes at breakfast when they all could be combined into one neat little package?

But nothing cemented the breakfast sandwich’s place in modern American culture more than the fast food industry. Though Jack in the Box was serving up an egg, meat and cheese breakfast sandwich on an English muffin as early as 1969, it was at McDonald’s where they really caught on.

In 1971, advertising exec Herb Peterson invented the Egg McMuffin when trying to create a version of eggs benedict that didn’t require Hollandaise sauce. He found that a broken-yolked egg fried in a Teflon ring, topped with meat and cheese and set between two halves of an English muffin did the trick. Peterson started selling the sandwich at a restaurant he owned, then introduced the Egg McMuffin to McDonald’s chairman Ray Kroc.

Kroc was enamored with the sandwich, and the rest is history. The Egg McMuffin was on the McDonald’s menu by 1972, and it was a hit. A hit with staying power, too – in October of 2015, McDonald’s started selling their Egg McMuffins all day, due to its continued popularity.

Today, pretty much every fast food joint, deli, and elite brunch spot has its own iteration of the breakfast sandwich. And while prosciutto, local free range eggs, and Gruyère on buttered brioche make for a great sandwich, nothing beats the original: a sloppily fried egg, crispy bacon and melted cheese on a slightly stale roll.

"The Humble History of the Breakfast Sandwich" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.