From the moment it opens at 8 a.m. every day, customers flood Chicago’s Bang Bang Pie shop, drawn in by the smell of browned butter and toasted sugar. On a recent morning, peach raspberry was moving fast, as were slices of apple spiked with cider and baked in a graham flour crust. One sharply dressed woman had the genius idea to add a fried egg to her chicken pot pie. “It’s like brunch, to-go,” she said to the smiling cashier. The next person in line opted for a slice of key lime as the clock struck 8:43 a.m.
Pie for breakfast is nothing new. Prior to the 1600s, people in Medieval Europe rarely ate a meal before noon; depending on their socio-economic status, that first meal could have included meat, fish, or fruit (and often all three combined) baked into a crust. The go-to cookbook of the day was The Forme of Cury, according to Michael Symons’s A History of Cooks and Cooking, which describes several types of pie, or “pye,” including ones made with pork or rabbit, and a special version made from several kinds of white fish in addition to dates and raisins. Mincemeat pie and Cornish pasties evolved out of this tradition.
Colonists brought wheat to the Americas, and by the 1800s it flourished in states like Pennsylvania, where German settlers began making flaky crusts filled with apples — another European import. Bakers in Massachusetts were especially creative with pie fillings. In the mid-1700s, with lobsters practically leaping out of the oceans, cooks pulled the sweet meat out of its shell, chopped it and mixed it with “the Yolk of an Egg, a little Flour, Nutmeg, Pepper and Salt” to make meatballs, which were then stuffed into a pie crust along with oysters and anchovies, according to American Food: The Gastronomic Story.
With the exception of mincemeat, savory fillings gradually fell somewhat out of favor as New England’s many berry varieties, squash, and tree fruits filled pies. As Meg Ragland reported in the Press-Herald, housewives baked sweet pies through the fall and froze them for winter. In A Doctor in Homespun, an early New England domestic goddess, Mary Dole, remembers having “pie three times a day, always for breakfast.”
“I guess that one reason we eat pie for breakfast is because it’s there from last night’s supper,” wrote Marion Cunningham in her seminal The Breakfast Book from 1987. Pie for breakfast is an especially common option in the days after Thanksgiving, when a slice of pumpkin pie with coffee is a go-to morning snack. But in recent years, Americans seem to need to make an excuse to have pie for breakfast, as if a fruit- or custard- filled pastry is too indulgent for the first meal of the day.
Part of the reason for this, as Ragland notes, is that as Americans traveled abroad, pie started to seem old-fashioned and uncool, or unfashionably “rustic.” (Somehow, doughnuts and fritters did not fall into this cultural construct, perhaps because they were somewhat easier to prepare and popular as a street food.) Simultaneously, with jobs in cities growing due to the Industrial Revolution, fewer people were looking for large, hearty breakfasts to eat before heading into the fields. As women — the chief pie makers in America since colonial times — entered the workforce, they had less time to make pie. And, in the 1800s, health concerns, particularly about pie crust being “injurious to persons of delicate constitutions… because of the indigestible nature of the pastry,” as The Good Housekeeper put it in 1841, pushed pie out of our daily diets.
Around World War II, America’s hearts again warmed to pie thanks to a slogan for why soldiers were going to war: “for mom and apple pie.” That turned into “as American as apple pie” in the 1950s and 1960s, when cherry, apple, blueberry, and banana cream pies lined up on diner counters along roadsides and in big cities. Mass production of pie by frozen food purveyors like Sara Lee made pie accessible again through the 1980s, and the convenience of pre-made refrigerated crusts encouraged consumers to start making pie at home again in the ’90s.
Diner-style pies have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, fueled in part by pop culture (See: Dale Cooper, Sweeney Todd, Keri Russell), and the power of nostalgia. Pie shops again dot major cities in America, and the pies on offer — savory and sweet — have never been better. Quiche aside, it’s time pie for breakfast came into vogue again, too.
Pastry chef Angela Pinkerton, of San Francisco’s Che Fico and the newly opened all-day cafe and pie shop Theorita, says it’s her mission to serve people pie in the morning. “It’s really not that different from a breakfast pastry — it’s fruit and pastry,” she notes. “In some cases, pie can actually be less sweet.” Fruit pies might seem laden with sugar, but as long as the fruit itself is sweet enough, only a small amount of sugar and something to help thicken the juices, such as cornstarch or flour, is needed before the fruit will bake into a stable, not-too-runny pie. Plus, it’s that same sort of filling — fruit, sugar, and a bit of starch — that fills breakfast counter regulars like apple turnovers, danishes, and strudel.
At Sister Pie in Detroit, pastry chef and owner Lisa Ludwinski makes a breakfast pie (really more of a galette, or free-form pie) that she fills with different types of potatoes and aromatics such as onions and herbs. “We crack an egg on top of it before it’s finished cooking, so you still get that runny yolk and all of the other ingredients are cooked through and toasty,” she says. “The breakfast pie sells out within the first hour we’re open, without fail.” A popular version is filled with sweet potatoes, and served with a side of spicy mustard for dipping.
But like her colleagues, Ludwinski doesn’t think pie has to be savory or have a fried egg on top in order to be considered breakfast. “For me, the salted maple pie is the ideal breakfast pie,” Ludwinski says, her voice rising slightly with excitement. “It has the same profile as pancakes with syrup. The eggs are already baked into it, the crust has some cornmeal in it and is ultra buttery, and, well, we fry bacon on the weekends so a lot of people order a slice of it with a side of bacon for brunch.”
Similarly, at Pie Hole in Los Angeles, all of the pies, whether sweet or savory, are on display when the shop opens at 8 or 9 a.m. “Pie for breakfast is already a thing!” insists owner Sean Brennan, who notes that the shop keeps track of regulars and their breakfast orders. “We have one guy who gets a sausage hash hand pie, a quad latte, and two scoops of ice cream every time he comes in,” Brennan says. “That’s my kind of breakfast.”
At Theorita, there’s a full pastry menu on offer — including sticky buns, danishes, and tuffet-sized muffins — but pie is the main attraction. “We get more orders for pie at breakfast than at lunch,” Pinkerton says. “Everyone gets really excited about it. People order a slice and then sit down to do the crossword puzzle,” she says. “It’s amazing.” On a recent morning, Pinkerton put out an apple berry with brown butter crumble, a bourbon walnut chocolate creation, a jammy plum and fig crumble pie, and her PB&J pie, in which purple Concord grapes are baked beneath a crispy peanut topping.
Pie before noon was one of the primary goals at the appropriately named Pie for Breakfast, a shop and restaurant that opened earlier this year in Pittsburgh. Pie is so popular among the restaurant’s breakfast offerings that owners Trevett and Sarah Hooper are rarely able to sell pies whole due to the petite size of the bakeshop’s kitchen. On offer are just three varieties: vinegar (a type of chess pie), butterscotch, and peaches and cream.
Butterscotch might sound like an aggressively sweet pie-for-breakfast order, but with some Frappuccinos reaching 500 calories each, let’s not call the pastry police just yet. At Bang Bang in Chicago, where pastry chef Kelly Tamm manages the ovens, “people order chocolate pie in lieu of a chocolate croissant,” says owner Michael Ciapciak, who notes that they’ve had to ramp up production in the early mornings over the years. “Before 10 a.m., eight out of the first ten orders include pie, no question.” When the shop first opened in 2012, Ciapciak was worried people wouldn’t order pie for breakfast, so he added biscuits to the menu. “Turns out,” he says with a chuckle, “pie easily outsells biscuits at breakfast time.”
Daniela Galarza is a senior editor at Eater.