The tale has often been told of Benjamin Wenberg who created a fabulous new dish at Delmonico’s restaurant in NYC sometime in the 1870s. The punch line revolves around how Charles Delmonico changed the name to Lobster Newberg to spite Wenberg after the two men had an argument. Do you believe the story? I am suspicious of it.
As a historian I run across many legends of this type. There is always a delightful little detail that makes the story click and lures journalists into repeating it so often that it becomes undisputed truth. Less catchy, and thus less repeated versions of the Lobster Newberg story, suggested that Wenberg did not want his name used so the name of the dish was altered slightly – or that the Delmonicos named the dish Newberg right from the start out of respect for Wenberg’s privacy.
It’s doubtful that Wenberg invented the dish. A sauce made of cream, egg yolks, butter, and sherry wine – the à la Newberg part of Lobster Newberg – was known as terrapin sauce and was in use before the 1870s.
Did Wenberg have anything to do with Lobster Newburg? Some stories imply he was the first to use the sauce with lobster. To me it seems doubtful that he would be more likely than top chefs to see its wider potential. In fact at least one Delmonico chef claimed to have developed the dish. In yet another version of the story, Delmonico’s named it for him because he ordered it so often.
Maybe. Whatever. As far as I can tell, no one has ever found the name Lobster Wenberg on a Delmonico’s menu. Nor has Lobster Newberg been found on menus from the 1870s or 1880s.
Although Benjamin Wenberg may be altogether irrelevant to the story of Lobster Newberg, he was an actual person, a well-known figure in New York City in the 1850s and until his death in 1885. He was in the shipping business, buying, selling, and chartering sea-faring vessels. At least one of his ships, Panchita, was suspected of engaging in the slave trade in 1856 and 1857.
The dish attributed to him became popular in the 1890s and the legend of its naming was oft repeated in this decade. It was a favorite chafing dish recipe for home entertaining and any restaurant with the least pretensions was bound to have it on the menu. Restaurants occasionally prepared it tableside in a chafing dish. Shrimp, crab, scallops, and sometimes frog legs were also offered à la Newburg.
These dishes were usually spelled with a U on restaurant menus. Which is another oddity since Wenberg’s name was usually spelled with an E.
© Jan Whitaker, 2010