1890s Pie floater invented in Port Pirie, SA

Pie cart in Ellen Street, Port Pirie, SA, in 1919

The quintessentially South Australian pie floater was reputedly invented by a Port Pirie baker known as Ern ‘Shorty’ Bradley. It consists of an upside-down pie in a bowl of soup made from blue boiler peas, topped with tomato sauce. It is eaten with a spoon. Sometimes the tomato sauce is replaced with vinegar or Worcestershire sauce.

The culinary heritage of the pie floater probably comes from northern England where pea and pie suppers are a traditional form of entertainment. The term ‘floater’ is also used in parts of England, where dumplings for soup are described as floaters or sinkers. It’s not clear how this term came to be applied to the pie and soup combination.

Ern Bradley operated a bakery in Port Pirie. Although legend has it that he invented the pie floater in the 1890s, the first printed record seems to be from 1914,  when he advertised his evening coffee stall in the Port Pirie Recorder. His cart was positioned near the Casino cinema, and Bradley invited patrons to “slip across to the Coffee stall and have Good Supper”.  He offered “Hot Pies and Pasties and a Specialty. Hot Saveloys, Rolls and Floaters.

I was recently involved in a radio segment about the pie floater and who should phone in but Ern Bradley’s granddaughter. She described how her grandfather used to make the pea soup in a giant pot and take it to the smelter works at Port Pirie, where he would serve pie floaters to the workers.

The Floater became a popular dish at the many pie carts that operated in Adelaide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first pie cart is thought to have been operating by 1860 outside the Adelaide Post Office. By the turn of the century, there were 13 carts dotted around the city. However from the late 1930s, as the operators ceased trading, the Adelaide City Council refused to re-issue licenses and by 1958 only two remained. The last pie cart, outside Adelaide’s Central Station,  was closed in 2010, but the pie floater is available through bakeries, including several 24-hour establishments, so late-night revellers can get their floater fix.

In 2003, the South Australian National Trust recognised the pie floater as a South Australian Heritage Icon.

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