A friend wrote: “Seriously, I’m tired of cooking and have come to hate the question, ‘So what do you want to do about dinner?'”
Even more disturbing, was this text from one of the strongest, sanest women I know who happens to be an incredible cook and the kind of person who thinks nothing of producing massive amounts of food to feed whole neighborhoods, such as after Hurricane Sandy and 9/11: “I’m soo over cooking every day!”
As for me, I’ve started to involuntary crash around 3 p.m. into what I imagine a heroin nod is like, returning to consciousness only to forget that dinner should be more than a box of Triscuits.
Welcome to week 7 of the Covid-19 epidemic in New York City!
Whatever week you’re in, I’m guessing you’re feeling about the same as me and my friends. To understand what is happening to us, I texted my go-to expert, Bob Olivia, whose comprehensive advice on reducing stress I re-posted two weeks ago.
“What’s HAPPENING?” I yelled.
His respond pointed out that self isolation is unnatural for people, “think of it as being in solitary confinement,” and commenced a scientific lecture involving the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala–the seat of worry–which leads to undermining the hippocampus, raising cortisol and exhausting glandular system.
“This all leads to a state of grumpiness. Lol”
There you have it. If the virus doesn’t get us, our hippocampus will. And with that I forced myself to get up and head to the kitchen. Maybe I could find an alluring recipe.
My first challenge was that I couldn’t abide one more recipe from chipper food editors and bloggers who have a misguided belief that we all want to spend this time learning new dishes. I don’t, do you? Maybe a little variety, but not the kind that introduces unavailable ingredients and have more than two steps. What I was really hunting for were recipes that, not only would provide easy sustenance, but what Mom would call a big old-fashioned dose of “bucking-up.”
And so I turned to two cookbooks written by indomitable, sensible women from past generations: church ladies and Clementine Paddleford.
In normal times, I would not seek out church ladies, those straight-laced Christian women who dominate church services and gatherings with unyielding propriety. For one thing, I’m pretty sure I’d slink away under their gimlet-eye gaze. But, of course, these are not normal times and won’t be for awhile, and a church lady’s tough love and wisdom is much needed. Take to heart a few church lady axioms on life:
Wear this world like a loose garment.
When in doubt, shout.
Don’t ever mistake my kindness for weakness.
And, of course:
This too shall pass.
I don’t know when I found The Church Ladies’ Celestial Suppers and Sensible Advice: A heaping helping of comfort food with a side of good old-fashioned values, a collection of recipes from Black churches across the country. I didn’t even open it until now. But the mere title was enough for me to grab a hold of it.
For Sunday’s dinner I turned to the meats and poultry chapter. Given that the sun was setting on a cold drizzle and I had a packet of ground beef, I chose Champion’s Chili, noted for being served at the Fall Festivals and Men’s Ministry Football Dinner. Keep in mind that the recipe is from the 1960’s when chili recipes were not a competitive sport. It also calls for a package of chili mix. I made my own spice blend. You should, too.
Serves 8 but cut it in half and you’ll have enough left over to freeze for another meal
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 large green bell pepper, diced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 (1.8 ounce) chili mix (or your own blend)
1 (14-ounce) can black beans, drained
1 914-ounce) can corn, drained
2 cups water
1 tablespoon cumin
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup fine cornmeal
Brown the ground meats in a large stockpot. Add the vegetables and cook until soft. Add the tomato paste and chili mix. Stir well and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Pour in the canned beans and corn. Add the cumin and cilantro. Cook for 5 minutes. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed. Stir in the cornmeal and simmer the chili for 20 minutes, stirring often. Serve over the rice.
Clementine Paddleford was an insurrectionist in the food world. As a journalist for major New York City newspapers, she eschewed anything fancy to concentrate on the city’s small and ethnic restaurants, writing superb profiles of the owners and, occasionally, their patrons. For her most famous book, How America Eats, she traveled across the country and had kitchen-table chats with cooks (mostly housewives and their daughters) to uncover the character and backbone of our native dishes. The book is arranged by state localities which resulted in introducing readers, many for the first time, to specific regional specialties. By now, there are a tower of books that seek to do the same (including my own) but none are as plain-speaking and delightful, even if you never follow a single recipe.
I had three disintegrating bananas on hand which naturally led to a search for banana bread recipes. There are two in How America Eats–one from Mississippi and the other from what Paddleford called the Far West, in this case Denver, Colorado. The differences between them amounts to the quantity of eggs (1 versus 2) and the addition of baking powder. I went with the one from 14-year old Carol Jean Humphrey, a member of the local 4-H Club who amassed 22 blue ribbons for her cooking, most notably for banana and french breads.
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups sifted floour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large banana mashed
Cream butter and sugar thoroughly. Beat in egg. Blend in sifted dry ingredients and mashed bananas. Pour into greased and floured 8 x 4 x 2 1/2 inch load pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes.
Note: Chopped nuts and lemon juice may be added also.
Full disclosure: You may notice that the center of my bread doesn’t look quite cooked. It isn’t. I was using my new Breville Smart Oven and couldn’t figure out how to set the timer. After taking the bread out four times to see if it was done, and finding it was anything but, I called my sister for help since she was the one who recommended the damn thing as a short-term solution until I could get my broken stove fixed. This all resulted in the bread baking on and off for two hours and it still wasn’t done when I gave up. It’s a measure of the recipe’s strength that it remains delicious. The husband and I have a slice right before our bloody lethargy kicks in.