Benedictine sandwiches may not have the universal appeal of the mint julep, but they are, nevertheless, a rich Louisville tradition—especially during Derby Days, the height of Kentucky’s tea-party season. Based on a green-tinged cucumber-onion-cream cheese spread, Benedictine sandwiches are named not for an order of monks, but for Miss Jennie C. Benedict (as she was invariably called), who ran a local catering business. Born in the Louisville area in 1860, Benedict made her mark with her philanthropy, her children’s parties, and her white fruitcake (according to legend, her father, a food importer, cornered the local market on a fancy, top-quality, light molasses). In 1893, she expanded her business to include a tea shop, and it was there that the sandwiches first appeared.
“I have no idea why she made the spread green,” says Stephen Lee, who is working on a biography of Benedict (and who owns Louisville’s Cookbook Cottage, the third oldest cookbook store in the United States). “Perhaps it was the novelty—or maybe just to differentiate it from the then-popular pineapple-cream cheese combination.”
These days, Louisvillians enjoy their Benedictine spread not just as a sandwich filling, but as a bright spring dip (thinned with sour cream or mayonnaise) for potato chips and crudites. Most locals buy it premade in tubs in supermarkets, although aficionados sniff that these tend to be the “color of old-time hospitals” and possess a “McDonald’s-like predictability”.
The classic Benedictine sandwich was simply the spread on slices of crustless bread—but sometime in the 1970s, somebody had the bright idea of enriching it with a dense, chewy, salty slice of bacon; and somewhere along the line, the crusts started staying on. “I don’t know anyone who cuts them off anymore,” says Lee. He also admits that what has come to be accepted as Miss Jennie C. Benedict’s formula is probably not, really. Benedict died in 1928, and according to Lee, “she went to her grave with her recipe.”