by Francesca Arniotes
In a neighborhood in Brooklyn in 1925, Mrs E.G. Buell compiled The Community Cookbook, with almost 400 favorite recipes and homemaking tips from her fellow ladies of Bensonhurst.
It is proper to be writing for a paper named “Your Mountain Connection” because connection is everything. We are all connected whether we acknowledge it or not, although it would be in everyone’s best interest to get hold of that fact pretty soon. Think about the moments when you have been overcome with happiness. I’m willing to bet each one was a moment of connection with humans, animals or the natural world, rather than a car, a game or a pair of shoes. How many times have we experienced profound happiness while sitting around a table with family and friends, sharing food, drinks and stories? The ability to make the world a better place abides with those who make just such a daily opportunity for caring connection happen.
I own several cookbooks from the early 1900’s (I discussed The Settlement Cookbook in my May 2020 article) which were written to guide women in their role as homemakers. Besides recipes, these books advise women how to make a happy home, a happy marriage and raise happy, respectful and responsible children. These books were generous and caring efforts at connection between settled American women and new immigrants who had left their mothers, families and familiar ways behind and landed in a fast paced and dynamic society with its own demands and expectations. Easing their transition was a kindness that also paid dividends by building a united and functional culture. Caring for one another is fundamental to happiness and happiness is fundamental to a healthy society. Were these women who collected and compiled recipes from neighbors and newcomers and who instructed about meal planning, table manners and home economics wiser or braver than we are today? Wiser, because they recognized the awesome power wives and mothers have to affect the common welfare and the happiness of the community. What is greater power than to build and nurture human beings toward reaching self-actualization and becoming builders and nurturers themselves? Or braver, because they boldly communicated common values and instructions for keeping house and raising a family. They also found the courage to buck the politics and the beliefs of their tribe or their class in favor of honoring diversity and helping all women contribute to the greater good. These cookbooks illustrate the importance and impact of the dinner table and the power and responsibility of a homemaker in the kitchen. When one embraces that role with joy, looks upon cooking as an act of love, and aims to nourish the family by creating daily time to connect in a pleasurable and restorative hour, it is supremely satisfying and fulfilling.
In 1925, convenience foods were fairly non-existent, commercial frozen foods and supermarkets just the germ of an idea, and tools and cooking equipment very labor intensive. Today we can get a meal going remotely or, thanks to gadgets from refrigerators to stick blenders, have a homemade, balanced meal on the table in about a half hour. After dinner, a few minutes to load the dishwasher and everyone is free. It’s a world the ladies of Bensonhurst could only have dreamed of. I love being in my kitchen and cooking for my family, but I have many additional interests and there are only so many hours in a day. So when I cook, I fancy myself a model of efficiency so that all the joy of cooking does not turn to utter despair afterwards when it looks like the kitchen exploded. I clean as I go, often washing and reusing a single mixing bowl and using the same skillet – first for greens in garlic and oil, then to cook the potatoes, and then for the chicken, finally adding a splash of wine and some stock to deglaze and a knob of butter to emulsify everything into a luscious pan sauce. Thirty minutes in the kitchen, a leisurely dinner hour and a few minutes of clean up, and it’s back to the table for a game of Dominion or a movie. Want to try my sample dinner above? You can substitute vegetables, meats or fish. Consider herb or spice blends such as Herbs de Provence, Ras al Hanout, curries, etc for variety. Cheers to the homemakers!
Swiss chard, cut the bunch crosswise into several pieces. Slice stems.
3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled.
Potatoes, unpeeled, cut into ¼ inch cubes while greens are cooking
Chicken breasts, sliced in half horizontally while potatoes are cooking.
Put garlic and olive oil to cover the bottom into cold skillet. Turn heat to medium low. When garlic is fragrant and just starting to color, add the greens and stir to coat. Add 1/4 cup water, cover and cook until water evaporates. Transfer everything to serving bowl and keep warm.
Return the skillet to the burner, turn heat to medium high, add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet, and add potatoes. Stir and cook 5-7 minutes. Add salt, pepper, and spices if using. Remove to serving bowl & keep warm.
Return pan to the burner. Add oil to cover bottom. Dredge dry chicken in seasoned flour and add to hot oil. Cook in batches a minute or two on each side, depending on thickness, removing to a plate. Deglaze pan with ½ cup wine and ½ cup stock, reduce liquid by a third, remove from heat, whisk in a knob of cold butter, taste, add salt if needed and return the chicken and juices to the skillet and allow to rest in the sauce on the closed burner for a few minutes.