A Tale of Two Stuffed Peppers
Recipes aren't just a reflection of culture. They are records of specific moments in time.
Growing up, a lot of my family recipes involved various ways to revive stale bread. The dumplings in our chicken and dumpling soup were just balled up slices of bread. Stale bread was used for the crumbles on top of our mac and cheese. Sometimes, we’d ball up stale bread and roll it around in sugar and cinnamon for a sweet treat.
There are a lot of recipes born out of frugality and a need to reduce waste. But among my family’s stale bread recipes, my favorite was stuffed peppers. I know what you’re thinking — stuffed peppers are usually filled with meat and rice, not stale bread. Well, not my family’s stuffed peppers. My family’s recipe comes from my great-grandfather who brought it to America from Sicily. They’re made with a simple filling of stale bread, egg, garlic, parmesan cheese and parsley forming a savory blob that, when covered in tomato sauce, almost tasted like eating meatballs.
I honestly didn’t know that stuffed peppers were made any other way until one fateful dinner at a friend’s house when I was a teenager. My friend’s mom passed me a plate of spaghetti and a large stuffed bell pepper overflowing with sauce which hid its true filling from my view. Anticipating its gooey carb-loaded insides, I cut the stuffed pepper in half and was absolutely flummoxed when out tumbled a mixture of rice, ground beef and cheese.
Of course at this point in my life I knew that recipes had different variations that reflected not only personal preference but also cultural expression. I thought perhaps this meat and rice version was something my friend’s mom whipped up from her own imagination. Or, maybe it was part of a different culinary tradition — stuffed peppers are prevalent in other cultures throughout the Mediterranean. Either way, in my mind, the stale bread stuffed pepper was the original, mainstream, true Sicilian take on the recipe.
So I asked my friend’s family where this peculiar version of stuffed peppers came from. “Sicily,” replied the mother, “I learned it from my grandmother.” When I explained that the bread stuffed peppers I was used to were also from Sicily, they were just as confused as I was. “No,” said the father, “meat and rice is the traditional Sicilian way. I grew up with meat and rice stuffed peppers, too.”
Being the absolute nerds we were my friend and I took a poll among our classmates to see who stuffed their peppers with meat and rice, and who stuffed their peppers with stale bread. Nearly everyone responded that they were on team meat and rice, and though a handful said their families made stuffed peppers with stale bread they still incorporated meat in their recipe. Absolutely no one experienced a meatless stuffed pepper… except for me. It was easier for me to believe that I had somehow shifted into a dimension where everyone’s stuffed peppers were brimming with meat instead of bread. But alas, I was living in a Mandela Effect all by my lonesome.
Recipes aren’t just reflections of our culture or our personal preferences. Sometimes they tell the story of social class, of struggle, of migration, of needing to make ends meet, but ultimately they tell a tale of resilience. When we cook our family recipes, their stories persist — they live on through us.
What makes Italian-American food uniquely American is the generous servings of meat and cheese. Many Italians who migrated here were poor, and though funds were still tight even on this side of the Atlantic, they had access to ingredients they couldn’t get their hands on in the old country. Meats and cheeses that signified wealth back home were available to them in America. It’s why so many Italian-American staples are loaded up with mozzarella, provolone, and Parmigiano-Reggiano and why some families serve tomato sauce with both sausage and meatballs in it.
My family’s stuffed pepper recipe was just as traditional as other family recipes. Our stale bread take on the classic dish was a remnant of a time when our Sicilian relatives had to make do with what little they had. And though times changed and they could get their hands on ground beef and sausage, they just kept making stuffed peppers the way they were used to — as a means of using up stale bread and not letting anything go to waste.
My husband has more connections to his family’s Sicilian heritage than I do. Though we both grew up with some Sicilian food in our family’s, his grandmother’s cooking is far more decadent and heavier on the meats and cheeses than the frugal dishes I am accustomed to.
I made my family’s version of stuffed peppers this past weekend and though they’re just as tasty and comforting as I remember, my husband was confused at the lack of meat. I think next time I’ll combine our two family traditions and add some meat to these stuffed peppers. I know ground beef and rice is more common, but I’m thinking stale bread and Italian sausage.
Bread Stuffed Peppers
This recipe can be intuitive and depends on the size of the peppers you’re using, how well the bread absorbs moisture, and other factors. So be sure to change according to how firm or gooey you want your filling to be. If you feel the filling is too wet, add more bread, if it’s too dry, maybe add a little water (another egg may be too much).
5 cups of stale bread ripped into small pieces
3 large bell peppers
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl mix stale bread with eggs, garlic, parmesan cheese and parsley. Mix until the ingredients so that the bread absorbs some of the moisture from the eggs but isn’t completely saturated. The mixture should be firm and the bread should still maintain some of its texture. Set mixture aside.
Cut the tops of the bell pepper off and remove the seeds. Set the tops aside. Stuff the peppers with the bread mixture.
Add some sauce to the bottom of a baking dish or dutch oven. Place stuffed peppers in the dish, open side up. Place the tops of the peppers over the filling.
Cover with lid or with tin foil and cook at 350°F for 30 to 40 minutes, or until peppers begin to soften and their skin wrinkles a little bit.
Serve with some tomato sauce and meats on the side.
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