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An illustration of a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich cut in half. Illustration by Ella Ginn

New York’s Culinary Mascot: The Bacon, Egg, and Cheese

An ode to the sandwich that gets us out of bed in the morning.

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In New York, breakfast is as diverse as the millions of people calling the state home, but one staple is cherished from Brooklyn to Buffalo: the bacon, egg, and cheese. I remember the first time I ordered one. It was an early morning, years ago, in my second week of living in the city. I had a trial shift to be a server at an upscale steakhouse in Hell’s Kitchen and desperately needed something to calm my hunger, and nerves, before starting the 1-train journey downtown. I ran down the vaguely uneven stairs of my apartment building, barreled out the front door, and stepped into the bodega across the street. As someone who typically doesn’t eat much in the early mornings, I intended to only grab a granola bar and a coffee. But once I smelled the bacon sizzling on the grill, I reconsidered. A couple minutes later I continued my walk to the train, peeled back the foil holding the layered sandwich, and bit into my first bacon, egg, and cheese.

Having grown up in the South, I had eaten plenty of breakfast sandwiches before (the most common being fried chicken on a buttery, honey-coated biscuit or a sausage, egg, and cheese on the same). But this foil-wrapped sandwich couldn’t have been more different. Living in Manhattan’s Washington Heights at the time, the bodega man slathered mayoketchup (the Puerto Rican classic I grew up pairing with tostones and mofongo) on the roll as the last assembly step, adding a slightly tangy kick to the already salty and savory meal. I had hit the breakfast jackpot.

An illustration of a ketchup bottle, salt shaker, and pepper shaker with tomatoes in the background. Illustration by Ella Ginn

The way it’s ordered varies by customer — some adding ketchup with salt and pepper, others choosing hot sauce or even jelly — but the feeling of bliss that hits once you bite into it is universal. Whether you’re adding some fuel to an early morning, need something quick and easy, or simply just wake up craving it, the no-frills sandwich is a go-to.

The trio of the crunchy bacon, cheesy eggs, and the toasted bread they’re tucked between, is an unmatched flavor that’s never wrong. And while the trio technically isn’t unique to New York — to assign ownership to such a common sandwich would be inane — the relationship to it, the strong opinions of how it should be ordered, and the communal feeling of waiting in line to nearly scream your order over a counter, is. “The BEC is like NYC,” Kye Toscano in Brooklyn, says. “Greasy, messy, kinda falling apart, but the most delicious and sustaining thing.”

New Yorkers have a deep pride in where we live, often embodying the “I might complain about it but that doesn’t mean you can” mentality other people might reserve for family or other complex relationships. And the opinions of how to do, say, or feel about nearly anything are just as strong — and that includes how we order breakfast. “When I leave New York I miss BECs, literally,” Anne Franklin in Beacon says. “Ordering out of state meant a dried up bagel instead of a roll, too little cheese (and sorry, a BEC is only a BEC with American cheese), uncrispy bacon, scrambled eggs (the horror) — only New Yorkers know how to do a BEC right.”

Julia Black, another Brooklyn-based New Yorker, has tried to master the art of the at-home BEC but hasn’t found success. “I make them all the time (two eggs, American cheese, two pieces of bacon, everything bagel), but I’ve never been able to match the real bodega deal,” she says. “The gooeyness, the way the layers meld like a cutaway of ancient rock… my bacon is never as crispy. My favorite is eating a BEC after a hard workout when my stomach is a bottomless pit.” She DM’s me a photo of the many layers of a rock formation. “How BEC layers should look, for reference,” she jokes.

Trying to find one across the state isn’t hard. Not just served at bodegas, corner delis, or sidewalk carts, the BEC can be found on menus at New York diners, coffee shops, cafes, and virtually anywhere serving breakfast. And as more chefs attempt more adventurous approaches, the sandwich has faced tweaks and rebrands along the road. The typical roll or bagel is being swapped with a milk bun, croissant, biscuit, or brioche. The American cheese is replaced by Swiss, pepper jack, or havarti. Add-ons like avocado, hash browns, or pickled onions are added to the layers, stuffing the sandwich further.

Whether you agree with the varied modification or not, each variation has its fan. The inventive approaches are either loved or hated, because the staple doesn’t need the add-ons or perceived upgrades. The charm of the greasy sandwich is its straightforward nature, reliability, and comfort — that’s the beautiful thing about the BEC.

For BEC-loving New Yorkers, the adoration for the sandwich doesn’t have to stop after the last bite either. Whether you’re in line at the deli, running into a gas station, or picking up the New York State lottery’s newest Bacon! Scratch-Off Game at your local retailer. Now you can bring home the Bacon! with a chance to win up to $1,000,000.

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