Like Thanksgiving, Labor Day is a national holiday. Unlike Thanksgiving, it does not have an official meal. One-hundred-and-twenty years on, it's time we had one. I'm nominating the peppers-and-eggs sandwich as the official meal of Labor Day, and I'll tell you why in a moment.
First, some declarations.
1. Most people only think of Labor Day as a day off at the end of summer, or a good day to buy a dishwasher. Lost is its original meaning: a "national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country." The holiday is rooted in the late 19th-century labor movement and the unions that eventually represented 40 percent of the American workforce. But this isn't just history. Labor Day still honors all who work. Having an official meal is a good way to give it new ritual and renewed relevance.
2. Hamburgers and hot dogs do not — and cannot — constitute the official meal of Labor Day. That's virtually the same meal Americans have on Memorial Day and countless times over the summer. Such common fare does not provide sufficient commemoration.
3. The official meal of Labor Day should be edible and symbolic. I'm not sure what the turkey symbolizes on Thanksgiving, besides a large bird that can feed many. I think we can do better with the official Labor Day meal — and not harm any animals in the process.
Which gets me to my idea.
(Since this is my proposal, I get to go first. Other nominations are certainly welcome.)
My idea has its roots in the era of blue-collar workers who carried their lunches to the factory, field or mine in bag, box or bucket. Pardon the iconography, but my idea of labor is still informed by images from the 20th century, having known what the country's workforce looked like before outsourcing, the Information Age, the rise of China and the decline of unions.
You might find it strange that I'm extolling a homemade sandwich as the official meal of Labor Day when, these days, even low-wage workers are as likely to buy lunch at a fast-food restaurant as they are to carry it from home.
And, really, if we are going to have a sandwich to reflect the modern American worker on the first Monday in September, shouldn't it be fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomato on baguette with fresh basil, or maybe arugula?
I think not.
Labor Day Peppers-and-Eggs Sandwich
So here goes, submitted for your approval: a recipe for a modest but delicious working person's lunch, made with fresh ingredients from the late-summer garden.
Get four or five sweet green peppers from the farmers' market — cubanelles, if they're available, but bell peppers will do. (Some people want to use red peppers, but it's not necessary if you're making peppers-and-eggs for yourself or next of kin.)
Remove the stems and seeds. Wash the opened peppers under cold water, then cut them into quarter-inch slices. Do not dry the peppers; if they remain wet from the sink, that's actually a good thing.
Heat up some olive oil in a cast-iron skillet and, just before it starts to smoke, add all the pepper slices. You should hear crackles and pops. (Please make sure you're wearing a shirt, or at least an apron.)
If some of the slices scorch, that's a good thing, too. Reduce the heat a bit and cook the peppers for a few minutes, until they become soft but not mushy.
Beat four eggs and pour them into the skillet, over the peppers. The olive oil should be hot enough to make the eggs bubble a bit as they cook. Let the whole thing sit for about 30 seconds before you flip it with a spatula.
Add salt and pepper, a tablespoon of grated Parmesan, and a pinch of garlic powder.
From this point, the finish of this dish comes quickly. In fact, I usually shut off the stove and leave the peppers and eggs in the hot cast-iron.
Now you need Italian bread or rolls. (If you're trying to avoid bread, please, avoid it the rest of the year. Peppers-and-eggs need to be eaten as a sandwich.)
Make three or four sandwiches, then wrap them in aluminum foil, and let them sit for at least an hour because this will soften the bread and infuse it with the warm olive oil and the flavor of the peppers-and-eggs.
Warning: The aromas — indeed, the mere thought of a warm peppers-and-egg sandwich — can be pretty overwhelming. In my experience, this working-class sandwich was prepared early in the morning for consumption during the noon lunch hour. And when a brown bag was used, sometimes spots of oil would appear, making the wait for noon almost unbearable.
As you might have figured out, I drew this idea from my heritage. But the official Labor Day meal could be different for every family: a favorite sandwich honorable ancestors carried to the factory, field or mine in bag, box or bucket.