Does anyone under 35 (or 45, or even under 55) remember Lent? Our generations of gratification probably don’t think of a pre-packaged Jenny Craig meal the same way our parents and grandparents viewed meatless meals in the six weeks prior to Easter.
These days, abstinence from the food we enjoy often means we’re trying to look good in a bathing suit. Lent, on the other hand, is supposed to be contemplative and its dietary limitations soul-strengthening. The cottage cheese and fruit plate or the tuna casserole made with canned cream of mushroom soup— the so-called “Lenten lunch” often served in church basements after World War II, was usually a little frumpy.
UPDATE in April 2020: Lent aside, for anyone sheltering in place right now, pepper and egg sandwiches are the comfort-food we long for, retro school-day lunches at home with Nonna. If nothing else, they’re a reminder that there were meatless, guilt-free pleasures to be had before sushi and sashimi came ashore.
Italian-Americans have long enjoyed pepper and egg sandwiches on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. One suspects their appeal may have much to do with their simplicity—welcome after the excesses of Carnevale or Martedi Grasso. In Chicago’s Italian-American community, pepper and egg sandwiches once enlivened meatless Fridays throughout the entire Lenten period.
Not quite a fritatta, a pepper and egg sandwich is the combination of garlic, bell peppers, and onion, sautéed in olive oil until the peppers are wilted. Beaten eggs are added, and the whole mixture cooked until the eggs are done. The peppers and eggs are served inside a hearty loaf. Possible embellishments include either provolone or mozzarella and pale green pickled peperoncini, which add an acidic bite that contrasts with the sweetness of the fried bell peppers.
Since the 1950s, and possibly earlier, the “pepp ‘n egg” sandwich has been a popular lunch or snack. When I was a child, my Sicilian Methodist family spent summers on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, where we and other Italian-American families would pack picnic baskets full of pepper and egg sandwiches for an afternoon at the beach. As an adult, I encountered the sandwiches again in Rockport, Massachusetts, where I lived briefly among descendants of Calabrese, who favored them as picnic food. The photo above is a roadside diner near the New Jersey shore. No matter where they’ve turned up, no one has ever considered these meatless sandwiches the food of abstinence, especially not when they might be washed down with a cold beer or two.
1 or 2 Tbs. Olive oil
1 Clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 tsp Crushed red pepper flakes
1 Medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 Red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 Green bell pepper, thinly sliced
3 eggs, beaten
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 Loaf Italian bread (such as a bastone or a ciabatta)
Heat a sauté pan over medium heat then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the garlic and the crushed red pepper and sauté for a minute or two. Add the onion and peppers, regulating the heat so the onions don’t burn. Sauté until the peppers have softened.
Raise the heat to medium-high and add the beaten eggs. Stir to combine with the onions and peppers and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggs are set.
Slice the bread lengthwise without cutting all the way through. When the eggs are done, gently slide them onto the bread to make a sandwich and cut the loaf into four portions.
Serves 2 – 4