In the year 1948 BCE (Before the Child Era), hollandaise was, for American home cooks, the only classic sauce they made from scratch themselves. At least I cannot recall my mother or anyone else preparing mayonnaise or béarnaise or any brown sauce more complex than a gravy thickened with beurre manié. But hollandaise was the exception: it bathed—and still bathes—those poached eggs over broiled ham on toasted English muffins named after E. C. Benedict (1834–1920), the Connecticut yachtsman who supposedly invented the dish, and even unsophisticated cooks sent it out with poached salmon or as a dress-up for vegetables like asparagus or broccoli.
How did hollandaise attain this solitary eminence? Considering its difficulty—much the same as the difficulties one faces with the other emulsified sauces—you wouldn’t think that housewives caught up in the Eisenhower-era mania for labor-saving devices would have unhesitatingly taken on the last-minute tensions of a highfalutin sauce. But they did, just as they also whipped up other tricky items, hard sauce, or Yorkshire Pudding.
In this bag of tricks, made fashionable in the cooking schools and women’s magazines of pre–World War II America, most of the stunts were right out of ye olde England, and I think further research will show that hollandaise itself came to us from the assimilating Victorian machine operated by Mrs. Beeton.
I am certain, moreover, that no one has ever been under the misapprehension that hollandaise was Dutch, in origin or inspiration. Larousse Gastronomique (1938) tells us that in the French kitchen of long ago, hollandaise was a code word for fish served with melted butter. It’s easy to see how that might have evolved into our hollandaise, but it is impossible to believe that no one in France served melted butter with fish until some traveler happened to import the idea from a visit to Rotterdam or Maastricht.
Today, you could attend a lifetime of dinners and brunches, not to mention restaurant meals, without laying your eyes on a silken smooth and butter-yellow hollandaise. In the nouvelle cuisine, it vanished from the foreground and survived only as a means of thickening sauces without using flour. In the home, it was suppressed because of its cholesterol and calories and possibly because it was too vieux jeu. In hollandaise’s favor are elegance, a svelte acidity, and a moonlight splash of yellow that brightens up green vegetables and plain white fish.