Move over fried fish, pepper and egg is the supreme Lent sandwich

Steeped in religious lore, the Chicago staple is simultaneously unremarkable and transcendent in its simplicity

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published February 27, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Pepper and Egg Sandwich (Getty Images/bhofack2)
Pepper and Egg Sandwich (Getty Images/bhofack2)

When I begin to get antsy from early-in-the-year cabin fever, there are certain signs that I look for as indications that spring is really about to return: when the relative drab silence of winter is no longer just punctuated by an occasional whipping howl of wind off the lake, but by the light tittering of sparrows, lean from the cold; when the grape vines that are knotted and slung over the fences in my neighborhood begin to pop with buds; and when Chicago delis, diners and sandwich stands begin to advertise pepper and egg sandwiches. 

As the name would suggest, it's a no-nonsense sandwich. 

Eggs that have been whipped and salted are scrambled over a flash of heat in a puddle of olive oil, melted butter or sometimes both. They're then adorned with hunks of seasoned, roasted green bell peppers whose slightly charred skin gives way to a bittersweet center. This mixture is then stacked high on bread. A French loaf is classic, but I can't pass up a sesame deli roll if it's on the menu. Some places offer add-ins, like mozzarella cheese or cherry peppers, but I'd argue that that's gilding the lily. A pepper and egg sandwich is simultaneously unremarkable and transcendent in its simplicity — a statement that's perhaps fitting given its religious origins. 

The sandwich is believed to have been developed by Italian immigrants who came to Chicago in the late 19th or early 20th century. The city had, and still has, a large Catholic population and, at that point in time, devout Catholics abstained from eating meat on Fridays. By the 1960s, this spiritual requirement was amended and believers would still abstain from eating meat, however only on Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, the 40-day period known as Lent. 

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In addition to being very Catholic, Chicago was also an incredibly meat-centric town. As poet Carl Sandberg wrote in 1914, it was the "Hog Butcher for the World," rich in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. This presented a problem for many restaurant owners who saw business slow down significantly on early spring Fridays. That's when the pepper and egg sandwich migrated out of the domain of home cooks and onto menus. 

To this day, joints that are focused on fare like Italian beef (like Luke's, Ferro's and Al's #1) and hot dogs (Portillo's and The Dog Stop) for the other 235 days of the year also offer pepper and egg sandwiches. It's not a Chicago-specific dish, of course — I've stumbled into a few New York City bodegas that will whip them up, as well as Italian delis dotting the East Coast. However, they don't seem as closely related to Lent in other cities. 

I was born here, but moved to Louisville for about ten years. There, fish fries reigned supreme and I grew to love how the malty smell of beer, for both battering and drinking, seemed to swell in the city right before Friday rush hour. Yet, I never regarded it as the harbinger of spring in the way that I do pepper and egg sandwiches. When I moved back to Chicago in the dead of winter last year, I eagerly awaited for restaurants to start advertising their advent. 

After all, even if I've shed some of my Catholic school teachings, these sandwiches — in their buttery, salty and slightly pungent splendor — taste like home.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Catholic Chicago Christian Commentary Lent Pepper And Egg Sandwiches