Plant-Based Patties, Italian Peasant Style

Three common ingredients, a pan, and magic

One of my favorite breakfasts as a kid was an egg preparation I grew up calling, for reasons I don’t quite know, a “Mommy McMuffin.” It was simple but deceptively satisfying: one or two eggs, a few tablespoons of Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, mixed well and fried in olive oil till golden brown on the outside and fluffy, pancake-like in the center. (Although I used to occasionally ask my mother to make one for me “rare,” with the center still slightly moist and eggy.)

To this day I’ll still make a breadcrumb omelet when I feel like something heartier or tastier than a plain fried or scrambled egg, but lighter than something like French toast or bacon.

The recipe, such as it is, comes from my grandmother on my mother’s side, who raised her family in New York City and whose family hailed from Bari, on the southeastern coast of Italy. My mother learned it, as is often the case, with no context and, of course, no amounts or ratios. I had always assumed the “Mommy McMuffin” was just an invention of my Italian-American grandmother, a cheap, innovative, and tasty use of ingredients she probably always had on hand. Certainly, I’ve never seen or heard of anything quite like it before. But a couple of weeks ago, on a slow afternoon, I decided to search the web and see if anybody else had ever happened upon this wonderful simplicity.

I Googled. “Breadcrumbs and eggs.” “Breadcrumb omelet.” “Breadcrumb and egg patties.” What would you even call it?

But I got results. The first ones, at A Taste of Madness (the lead photo there brought back memories) and, presented the recipe as a way to use up breadcrumbs and eggs left over from preparing other things, like chicken or eggplant cutlets. even calls them “Leftover fried breading patties.” Not too catchy. These blurbs suggested that’s what my grandmother was doing too, and that lots of home cooks simply happen upon the idea of mixing together leftover breading ingredients. Not so much a recipe or dish as a bit of kitchen ingenuity.

But a little more searching yielded a breakthrough. At Tuscan Recipes, I found a page featuring an extremely similar recipe (it added fresh parsley, cheese, and garlic to the already seasoned breadcrumbs) shared by a reader, who wrote:

The egg paddies is a recipe from the Bari region of Italy….My parents came here from Bari, Italy in [the] 1920’s. We lived in New York City….This is the vegetarian alternative to meat balls. It can also be served in a sandwich with some sauce.

Bari. New York City. Meatballs!

And at the Italian cooking website Domenica Cooks, I found this recipe for “egg cutlets in tomato sauce,” sourcing the recipe from a letter to the editor that ran in a 2001 issue of Gourmet magazine:

The writer, who described herself as of Sicilian descent, spoke with great affection of her late mother’s egg patties, made with a mixture of eggs, bread crumbs, cheese, and parsley. My kids were very young at the time, 4 and 2 1/2, and those egg patties, or “cutlets” as I dubbed them, seemed like the perfect form of nourishment—easy to eat and easy to digest.

They were also a great example of Italy’s ingenious “cucina povera” (poor man’s cooking), with bread crumbs, eggs, and cheese standing in for meat.

The fact that these were reader submissions suggests this dish is more or less lost except for the handful of Italian Americans who grew up with it and still make it—it’s certainly not served, and probably never was served, in a restaurant. It makes me wonder how much else, inhabiting that interesting space between economic necessity and working-class culture, has been lost or forgotten.

Googling the Italian name, “polpette di uova,” doesn’t bring up a whole lot more, though it does suggest a distantly related dish: “egg patties with nettles.” Obviously unrelated, but based on the same frugal principle, is the American Depression-era “slugburger,” a meat patty extended with a flour or starch. (Like these breadcrumb patties, the slugburger develops an appealing crispy exterior.)

And so, that fond childhood breakfast of my mother’s, and then of myself, was not an invented dish based on using leftover ingredients. It originated in Bari (and, apparently, Sicily), as a peasant Italian dish—a budget alternative to cutlets or meatballs! The suggestion to cook these patties in tomato sauce drives home the dish’s origin as a meat replacement.

And that “Mommy McMuffin” name is kind of poignant; it was probably my grandmother’s way of partially satisfying her kids’ expensive cravings for fast food, which, in the 1960s and 1970s, was still a special occasion for a working-class Italian-American family. My grandmother made a lot of these “peasant” or “rustic” dishes, despite more expensive ingredients being much more available in America than they would have been for her family in Italy. (My father dubbed one of them, pasta with cubed potatoes, “starch with starch.”)

Like my dad, I never developed a taste for most of those dishes. But the humble breadcrumb and egg patty? With all the talk of soy protein and heme and bleeding plant-based burgers, it’s a very different, low-tech take on going meatless. Not only do I love it, I might even experiment with its uses and try those fresh additions, now that I know its true story. And perhaps the current concerns over the sustainability of meat can breathe new life into this old family recipe from a different time and place.

Related Reading:

The Glory of Tomato Paste

Why Not Put the Meat In the Bread?