Op-Egg: On the passing of Herb Peterson, an American pioneer
Roald Dahl once wrote a marvellous article about the glory years of confectionery, 1930-1937, during which "virtually all the great classic chocolate bars were invented". It is drizzled with such landmarks as "1930: Frys invented the Crunchie"; "1935: The wonderful Aero is introduced"; and "1937: Another golden year - Kit Kats, Rolos and Smarties were invented." Dahl concludes: "In music, the equivalent would be the golden age of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven", and suggests that these dates should be as prime in the child's memory as 1066 and 1769. Naturally, we have little time for chocolate here at the LRB - at least not until exactly one hour following the consumption of a full English, when an inexplicable craving for the stuff is wont to strike.
However, we cannot but wish that the history of breakfasting were so clear cut. Were we to compile our own timeline, and perhaps say: "1894: Lumuel Benedict wanders into the New York Waldorf and orders 'buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon and a hooker of hollandaise', thereby inspiring Eggs Benedict", we would find ourselves assailed by the estates of Commodore E.C. Benedict and Mme Le Grand Benedict, claiming the dish as theirs. Were we to write: "1860-70: The Indian cooks of British colonials develop kedgeree", we would be inundated by callers from Srinagar to Kovalam, pointing out that kedgeree is an ignorant imperialist take on the ancient and subtle Indian rice dish khichdi.
No such controversy with 1972, for this is a landmark date in the breakfast saga as clean as disinfected formica: it is the year Herb Peterson, who yesterday died peacefully at his home in Santa Barbara, California at 89 years old, invented the Egg McMuffin for McDonald's, a sandwich we shall henceforth call "the Peterson".
Here's the story. Herb was a Chicago ad-man of the old-school (the LRB imagines him a bit like that upstart in Mad Men), who took a sideways step into the fast-food chain in a major period of the firm's American expansion, coining the phrase "Where Quality Starts Fresh Every Day". A fan of Eggs Benedict, he decided that what McDonald's really needed was to create an aubade of a sandwich to awaken the appetite for congealed grease in a nation still reeling from the Vietnam war and urban race riots.
Experimenting in the Golden Lab one day, he substituted muffin for bun, Teflon-poached egg for beef patty and a round of Canadian bacon for iceberg lettuce. In fact, the one ingredient in common with the cheeseburger was the chrome square of cheese, a sliver of continuity in an unpredictable world. You may turn your nose up at its chemical after-taste and searing vegetable oil sheen. But what the fuck did you ever invent?
The LRB likes the locally reared, the deftly steamed and the thoughfully dabbed. But we have a weakness for the Peterson. A mania! Sometimes. Though they break all the rules, starting with 1) Never puncture the yolk. Sometimes we buy two of the fuckers at once. And chewing on a Malteser (1936) sixty minutes thence, we do not always regret it in a way we do the Big Mac (1968) the Quarter Pounder (1973) or the Chicken McNugget (1980). The simple truth is this: the combination of egg and salted meat is resilient to almost any horror in the cooking, serving and exploiting. As for McDonald's, we are only slightly alarmed that one of their best-selling lines should have been invented by an advertising executive. To Herb - "He embraced the community and the community embraced him", said Monte Fraker, a colleague from Santa Barbara, today.